How does death by hanging work?

How Hanging Kills the Victim

In a less-than-ideal long drop, if the distance is miscalculated or some other factor misses the mark, the subject will die of decapitation (if the drop is too long) or of strangulation (if the drop is too short or the noose knot isn't in the correct position). Strangulation can take several minutes and is a far more excruciating experience. The carotid arteries in the neck, which supply blood to the brain, are compressed, and the brain swells so much it ends up plugging the top of the spinal column; the Vagal nerve is pinched, leading to something called the Vagal reflex, which stops the heart; and the lack of oxygen getting to the lungs due to compression of the trachea eventually causes loss of consciousness due to suffocation. Death then follows in the same pattern as it does when the neck breaks, with the entire process ending in anywhere from five to 20 minutes.

When it comes to judicial hanging, the long drop is the most humane way to go. For the person being executed, the actual experience of the hanging lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes -- or at least that's the general belief by forensic scientists. In some countries where executions are carried out by hanging, though, other methods are used. In the short drop, which can be a few inches to a few feet, the subject invariably dies of strangulation and/or the compression of the arteries in the neck. The same type of death occurs in suspension hanging, in which the subject is jerked into the air instead of being dropped. And in a standard-drop hanging, the subjects falls about 5 feet. Depending on the weight and build of the subject, this drop will either break the neck and spinal cord or cause death by strangulation, carotid-artery compression or Vagal reflex. In these older methods, unconsciousness still typically occurs in anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but if it turns out to be a few seconds, it's blind luck (or bad luck, depending on how the country's legal system views the practice -- if the point of the hanging is severe punishment for the subject and deterrence to other would-be criminals, a "good hang" may be the most gruesome experience possible).

Hanging is a legal method of judicial execution in 58 countries, according to Amnesty International. In 33 of those countries, it is the only method of execution. In the United States, judicial hanging is legal in both Washington state and Delaware, and three prisoners have been hanged since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976.

For more information on judicial hanging and related topics, check out the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Childs, Dan. "Death By Hanging: What Saddam Faced." ABC News. Dec. 29, 2006.
  • "The process of judicial hanging." Capital Punishment U.K.
  • Stuttaford, Thomas. "Swift end rests with skill of the hangman." The Times Online. Jan. 1, 2007.,,3-2526006,00.html

More to Explore