This week I have had students ask me to explain the blood choke or sleeper hold. The sleeper hold is something that we use in Krav Maga and it is a technique that has been used by many militaries and police departments. I remember as a teenager going to a Billy Bragg concert and a support band, I think they were The Beatniks, talk about an African American graffiti artist who was choked to death by the NYPD. They performed a song about it; I think it was called “Blind Eyes of Justice”. In retrospect I personally think that the incident was probably a result of incompetence rather than racism or police brutality.
Many suspects would go limp when the officers would apply the hold only to escape as soon as the hold was released; it was a trick which was common knowledge on the streets. I think the cops held the sleeper hold too long to make sure that the suspect was not faking which resulted in his death. This is the reason why police departments in the US no longer use the sleeper hold. However I still think the sleeper hold is one of the most effective ways of stopping someone particularly if the individual is on drugs and immune to pain and other locks.
I will start by explaining the anatomy of the neck. The neck is the most vital attack point in hand to hand combat. As a teenager I once took a punch in the throat in a taekwondo tournament and for a few seconds I honestly thought I was dying. The largest artery is the aorta which branches off at the neck into carotid arteries which run either side of the windpipe. At the level of the Adam’s apple the carotid sinus divides into external and internal arteries. Inner artery supplies blood to the brain and the outer supplies blood to the face and scalp.
The carotid sinus houses the ‘vagus nerve centre’ which links directly to the heart. The sleeper hold is applied across the carotid sinus. Many people think that the choke works by stopping blood flow to the brain, this is incorrect as there are other arteries running up the spinal cord which also feed the brain. To get the almost instant dizzy feeling the vagus nerve is squeezed which in turn tells the brain that the blood-pressure is too high. The brain then sends a message telling the heart to slow the blood flow and reduce pressure. This is the mechanism which causes someone to faint by fooling the body’s own response to starve the brain of oxygen.
To apply the choke you simply encircle the opponent neck with your arm with the bicep and forearm clamped on either side of the neck. The elbow should be in front of the windpipe. With the free arm either grasp the strangling arm hand or have the strangling arm hand grab the free hand bicep whilst you apply pressure to the back of the head with the other arm. By using the scissor action of the forearm and biceps squeeze hard on the carotid arteries I have school members tapping almost immediately once I correctly apply the choke. Typically the hold takes 5-15 seconds to choke someone out.
To avoid injury do not apply pressure to the windpipe. Crushing the windpipe cartilage can be fatal. If you apply the sleeper hold for more than 3 minutes this will also result in death or serious brain damage. The sleeper hold is a very effective close quarter combat technique which is seen time and again in MMA as the rear naked choke. There will be ample opportunities to practice and get familiar with this technique in class.