What "instantaneous/painless" deaths are not instantaneous/painless?

The recent thread about Mount Saint Helens had me wondering:

There often is this tendency, especially in the West, to dismiss the suffering associated with certain types of deaths and say that they were painless or instantaneous - typically deaths involving high temperature, high speed, or considerable violence. But I have to wonder, are we being too optimistic about this due to a desire that such death not actually be painful?

One of the most common examples of this is deaths involving falling to one’s death (hitting the ground at high speed,) or collision deaths (high-speed car crash or airplane crash.)

Now, I have no problem believing that the passengers aboard an airplane that hits the ground at 500 miles per hour won’t feel much, but if the airplane hits the ground or water at 100 miles per hour, then isn’t there much more potential that the occupants would live long enough for their smashed body to feel agony? Same from someone who jumps from a 10-story building?

Same for deaths involving high temperature. There were Dopers arguing that if someone falls into molten lava, they would die instantly. But wouldn’t the brain, which feels pain as long as it is conscious, and is protected by a skull that affords temporary heat protection, and wouldn’t lose oxygen immediately, therefore still be awake and registering searing agony for some time?

Another Doper mentioned someone who claimed that a person who falls to their death from a height would have died from a heart attack before hitting the ground. That doesn’t sound physically or medically plausible at all.
What other forms of death are commonly believed to be “instant” or “painless”, that probably actually aren’t? Bullet to the head? Getting smashed by an object of enormous weight?

The most common case that I am also the most skeptical :dubious: about is “dying in your sleep”.

I have sleep apnea, and have, upon occasions, partially suffocated in my sleep. This is accompanied by a nasty sense of sinking or being closed in, as if being sealed inside a tomb, or falling into a deep well. The sensation is of extreme terror, and I usually rise from this gasping desperately and shuddering with the release of the fear.

I’m pretty sure that suffocating is not a nice way to die.

My friend once accidentally flicked hot solder onto my arm and I didn’t feel any pain until I removed it.

As the impact velocity is dialed from 500 MPH down to 1 MPH, the histogram of resultant injuries moves from "reliably and instantly fatal’ to “probably conscious for a while before dying” to “probably going to survive” to “reliably walks away without incident.” That said, I’m pretty confident that an impact velocity of 100 MPH is in the “reliably and instantly fatal” range.

Yes. Lava is much more dense than water, so you’ll float very high on its surface; probably only about 1/3 of your body’s volume will be below the surface. That high density means you can’t afford to fall from very high, lest you be killed by the impact alone. But assuming you survive your tumble, and assuming you’re not face-down, you’ll be able to breathe, but you’ll inhale scorching-hot air that will wreck your lungs, ending their ability to give oxygen to your blood. But your blood is already loaded with enough O2 to maintain consciousness for maybe 10-20 seconds, so you’ll have about that long to register pain.

Maybe a really old guy with severe heart disease might suffer a fatal heart attack during a prolonged fall (like from 15,000 feet), but that’s a pretty exceptional set of circumstances.

“Bullet to the head” isn’t always fatal. Like most other types of injury, there’s a histogram of outcomes ranging from “instantly fatal” to “survived for the long haul.” Jackie Pflug was shot in the head at pointblank range during a hijacking in the 1980s, and didn’t receive medical attention for 5+ hours, but lived to tell the tale.

I’d say death resulting from some types of oxygen deprivation might not be as painless as we think. It would have to do with how aware your brain is of what’s happening. If you’ve plunged into a lake and have your lungs full of water… or are being strangled, your brain will be very aware of what’s happening and the panic experienced will be very unpleasant, even if you lose consciousness in 10 seconds; then again the “pain” isn’t physical.

If the reduction of oxygen and build up of carbon dioxide in your blood is gradual enough, you can either not notice it or not experience enough of a “painful/panic” sensation to do anything about it… which can result in a painless death.

A person I knew told about almost dying from carbon monoxide poisoning from engine exhaust once. He was aware something was going on, but it was mild and gradual enough he could ignore the sensation… he mistook it for a mild buzz from the couple beers he had at the same time. Next thing he remembered was being revived by paramedics; I’d say that’s about as fast as you could die in that manner without experiencing some sort of unpleasantness, and anything faster than say 15 minutes or so wouldn’t be pain-free or lack suffering.

My mom almost died twice from pulmonary failure; a medical condition resulted in her blood oxygen levels gradually dropping over a number of weeks until she required hospitalization. Both times she had no idea or sensation of what was happening to her, and if we hadn’t been around to notice it she would have died not only painlessly but unknowingly.

I’ve heard that hypothermia is not unpleasant, once your core temp goes low enough. I don’t know enough to comment.

Some things which are not instantly fatal do cause instantaneous (or near instantaneous) loss of consciousness, which is the same thing for our purposes, I think.

For example, the bit about brief consciousness after decapitation, which has been discussed on the Dope before. Without speculating upon whether or not one can feel the guillotine blade as decapitation occurs, I have to believe the sudden loss of arterial pressure (down to zero), would cause instant loss of consciousness.

For some other things (like maybe the lava thing), I think the extreme pain would cause loss of consciousness in short order (but maybe not soon enough in the opinion of the sufferer).

Lastly, this conversation makes me think about pain rating scales in medicine. You are asked to rate your pain on a scale from “one to ten, ten being the worst pain you can imagine”. I tend to think of things like lying next to a building, a mass of broken bones. Or being worked over by a torturer with drills and stuff. And I get a bit queasy.

NOW, thanks to you guys, I’ll have to add lying on top of a pool of lava (possibly with broken bones) to my list. :smack: Thanks a lot! :rolleyes:

One of my pet peeves too. People really deeply want to believe this one. But it’s BS.

Expanding on Machine Elf’s comments …

The outcome depends a lot on what they hit how. 100mph headfirst against concrete or granite? Instant fatal for sure. The skull will fail like an eggshell and the brains will be spread over a 5 foot radius. If it hurt at all it didn’t hurt for more than a fraction of a second.

I’ve jumped off my motorcycle at 70mph and bounced, rolled, and skidded to a stop. The total injury was a shallow scrape the size of a US quarter on my right palm. The key thing was I was mostly sliding and came to a gradual stop, rather than a sudden stop against a bridge pier.

UAL232 United Airlines Flight 232 - Wikipedia touched down hard (20+mph) but going over 250mph horizontally. Even with the massive post-crash fire a lot of people were only lightly injured. OTOH I watched a lightplane spin in from about 600 feet. He hit the desert hardpan doing (SWAG) less than 100mph. But he hit it square, going essentially straight down. The airplane was shredded beercans and he was mostly mush wrapped around the engine.

Speed of stop (AKA acceleration & jerk) is everything.

It’s my understanding that the feeling of breathlessness isn’t from the lack of oxygen but from the presence of carbon dioxide. So it would seem to me that suffocating in another gas might in fact not be much different than just passing out as far as dying. I seem to recall reading stories of people passing out and/or dying in Nitrogen filled rooms and never really being aware anything was wrong. I can’t imagine death from not breathing or drowning though, just a few minor experiences I’ve had with accidentally breathing water while swimming or having the wind knocked out of me was both painful and terrifying.

For a lot of injuries, I think it really depends, as someone upthread said. Sometimes a fast crash is virtually instantaneous, sometimes it’s not; sometimes a gunshot to the brain is instant, sometimes it’s not. I really think we have a tendency to believe these sorts of things are instant because the idea of the kind of intense suffering it must be isn’t something we want to think about. Imagine hearing about how a family member, friend, or someone else you might care about died, it’s somehow at least a little reassuring to know it wasn’t painful.

And as someone also mentioned upthread about sleep apnea, I’m not even too sure that dying in one’s sleep is always painless. Maybe if their heart just gives out, sure. But if it was a heart attack, it might have awoken them and left them terrified, especially if the sudden jolt leaves them in sleep paralysis. Or maybe it doesn’t awaken them but it effects nightmares as their dying moments.

So, frankly, I’m not sold that any death that isn’t either very gradual and results in loss of consciousness or results in a pureed brain is painless.

Cognition regarding your impending death is one issue, but I think the OP is asking about physical pain.

Inert asphyxiant gases (N2, helium, etc) don’t cause physical pain; you just go from fine to dizzy to very dizzy to unconscious in the space of 10-20 seconds.

CO2 in the lungs causes physical pain and an automatic urge to breathe. If you are being choked in a manner that closes your airway, CO2 will build up in your lungs to painful levels long before the O2 concentration drops too low to maintain consciousness; this will be a very unpleasant death. OTOH, if you are being choked in a manner that closes off your carotid arteries, you will be unconscious in about ten seconds, long before your lungs are starved for fresh air.

If you are trapped underwater…that’s a fucking nightmare. You’ll become desperate to breathe, but you’ll know you can’t. At some point you have to try to breathe, but what happens then? Medical people, are we able to willfully fill our lungs with water? if so, O2 transfer would pretty much end at the point, and unconsciousness would follow within 10-20 seconds. But ISTR that the epiglottis involuntarily closes on contact with solids or liquids in order to prevent aspiration. If this is true, then the nightmare continues as CO2 builds up in your lungs, until the O2 concentration drops low enough to mercifully render you unconscious.

I apologise for not remembering the exact numbers, but there was a scientific journal/study that talked about in great detail what happens to us when we fall from a certain height/suffer high speed impact.

Basically, above a certain level of velocity, we wouldn’t feel or experience anything at the moment of impact because the reaction time of the nervous system/brain is slower than the speed we’re travelling at.

I can’t recall if it was 10 feet or 10 metres, but a human falling from a tall skyscraper would cease experiencing anything from roughly that distance from the floor… simply because it’s at this moment the body slams into the concrete.

You fall, and then say, ‘10 metres from the ground’, that’s it… lights out.

The same thing happens when an airbag is deployed inside a car - it inflates quicker than our brain can process information… so the person hit in the face with it has no concept over what has happened until after the fact.

Those jumpers/fallers from the WTC on 9/11 had an absolutely painless death.

So getting hit by a high speed train, falling from a plane, gunshot to the head, hit by the shockwave from an explosion etc… at the moment of impact, the brain is still processing information from around 0.2 seconds in the past.

Also, a bit of added trivia. When you watch a news report and the line ‘died instantly’ is uttered by the newsreader… it’s just a nothing phrase used to comfort the viewers, and has no basis in science/medicine.

But all that assumes the brain is sufficiently destroyed to not register ***subsequent ***pain.

What if a mangled brain can still register pain? What if the brain is 30% destroyed, not 80-100% destroyed?

If the brain was 30% destroyed, pain would be the least of your worries. Well, no it wouldn’t… you’d be dead.

You’d have to be conscious to experience pain, and the kind of impact to cause any significant brain injury would leave you in a coma at the very least.

the death may be immediate, but for jumpers, the severe terror experienced during the fall took up a few seconds.

Well, there is that. Then again, in that situation I wonder what goes through the mind. I doubt there is any screaming - if anything, probably the absence of conscious thought and overwhelming acceptance… but I’d imagine it’s highly stressful emotionally, especially as most people would anticipate a painful impact - the adrenaline would be off the charts.

I would like to add another candidate to the thread: Execution by electric chair. An encyclopedia claimed this is painless, and I doubt it.

Yes. If I were a criminal, I think I’d very much fear the chair. I cringe when I hear about the Rosenbergs.

But in fact, when it works properly, your seizing brain should be (immediately?) unconscious. But your seizing body, that must look awful.

I often use this as my suggested method for painless execution, without risk of failure, so I feel like I should defend it.

If a large, several ton, mass was dropped on you from a 20-30 feet up, I think it’s safe to say that your body (and brain) would be compacted to a wafer thinness in less time than your pain sensors could transmit a signal to your brain, from the time of first contact with the mass.

There is some chance your body could be quickly bounced around between the mass and the ground, and your head ejected out the side instead of being flattened, but a wide enough mass, a kevlar body bag to enclose you anchored in place, etc. could be used to prevent such an eventuality.

But, assuming that enough, catastrophic damage is done to the body in a short enough amount of time, you can definitely be taken out before registering it.

See http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/time-on-the-brain-how-you-are-always-living-in-the-past-and-other-quirks-of-perception/

I have seen reliable documentary evidence that 16 tons is the optimal mass.

Oxygen deprivation, as such, is painless. We know this, because we discovered that it was a painless dealth before we discovered that it was oxygen deprivation that was causing the deaths.

Not only that, in the investigation, we descovered that it is a repeatable and reversable phenomena (albeit causing permanent damage), so a well as watching and measuring what happened to military “volunteer” test subjects, we were able to interview them afterwards.

Oxygen deprivation does, however, cause convulsions. Some people, for some reason, are horrified by convulsions, and think that they must be horrible. But convulsions are another thing we can watch, measure, and ask people about afterwards.

And although it is by no means usual, I was aquainted with a person whu would deliberately induce convulsions. He didn’t think it was painful.