The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scoured news reports to tally deaths from the game -- also known as the "pass-out game" or "space monkey" -- because no official, nationwide records exist. The first report came in 1995, with three or fewer deaths annually until 2004. There were 22 deaths in 2005, 35 in 2006 and nine in 2007, with victims ranging in age from 6 to 19, the agency said Thursday.
"The choking game involves intentionally trying to choke oneself or someone else with one's hand or a noose to obtain a brief euphoric state, or a high," said Robin L. Toblin of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "If the strangulation is prolonged . . . death or serious injury can result."
Public health officials are calling attention to the practice because most parents were unaware of it until their children died. Nearly 90% of those who died were boys playing alone. Signs of the game include bloodshot eyes, marks on the neck, severe headaches, and ropes, scarves or belts tied to bedroom furniture, according to a CDC report.
The activity cuts off the blood supply to the brain, which deprives it of oxygen and can kill brain cells. Children typically lose consciousness, followed by a floating and tingling feeling as they revive and oxygen-rich blood rushes back to the brain.
Permanent disability can develop. The practice also puts children at risk of concussions, fractures, hemorrhaging in the eyes and coma.
The game has been played for decades but has become more deadly as children use ligatures that allow them to play alone. In the study, 67 of 70 deaths that were detailed in news reports occurred when children were by themselves.
It is also widespread, with deaths reported in 31 states. The number of choking-game fatalities is probably underreported, Toblin said, and there is no way to get an accurate national total since they aren't regularly reported to the government or listed on death certificates.