Neck Hold Techniques: A Cop's Perspective Part 1

By Al Arsenault

As a 25 year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department and a 33 year practitioner of the martial arts, I wish to share with you some insight on the topic of neck restraint holds that is outlined in greater detail in my freshly published book 'Chin Na In Ground Fighting' (YMAA Publications, 2003). There is a paucity of good information on this topic. Done properly, the 'sealing the breath' techniques work extremely well in quickly rendering a person unconscious in a safe manner; executed poorly, death may be literally on your hands.

Qin (Chin) means 'to seize or catch' and Na' means 'to control or hold'. By law, a police officerthatarrests a person must technically touch him/her and state the reason for his/her detention. For the combative criminal, a judicious application of force comparable with the amount of resistance offered by the arrested party is legally acceptable and even advisable, hence Qin Na can be thought of in the way that a police officer 'seizes and controls' his suspect. This article will focus on the classes of techniques that attack the neck by 'sealing the breath', and more safely, by 'sealing the vein'.

Although many martial arts claim to have a component of Qin Na in their style of fighting (often hidden within the forms or patterns of technique), it is most highly refined in the Chinese martial arts where it is considered as one of four essential martial components. The components are: Ti, da, shuai, and na. Ti refers to kicking techniques; da refers to striking and punching moves; shuai refers to wrestling (stand-up grappling more closely associated to tripping and throwing); and na as just explained, refers to 'seizing' and 'controlling' a person's joints, muscles and/or tendons and includes pressure point attacks on body cavities.

Man: The Machine
The human body can be regarded as a machine, one that is fully capable of being broken down piece bypiece, with someparts having more critical functions than others. The neck can be viewed as a vital conduit between the head (the computer) and the body (the machine). The nerves (electrical lines), wind pipe (gas intake line) and the circulatory veins and arteries (gas lines) pass through this narrow structure of the neck. A heavy blow from any angle will disrupt the machine, temporarily or permanently.

By starving the engine of gas, the machine must stop. The flow of oxygen to the brain can be shutoff,causing unconsciousness (and if with held long enough- death). Ultimately this is achieved via closure of the airway itself, or more quickly, via the sealing of the veins and arteries in the neck. Death may occur directly through extended choking or it may arise from the aftereffects of swelling caused by damage to the relatively delicate structures within the throat, such as the hyoid bone, trachea and larynx. In any case, a person can be rendered brain dead if the brain is deprived of oxygen for as little as four minutes.

Neck Hold Terminology
There is some confusion in the terminology relating to the classes of techniques based upon sealing the breath (respiratory restraint) and sealing the vein (vascular restraint). Choking and strangulation are terms often used to describe both of these classes of techniques. Although they look similar and ultimately yield the same results (unconsciousness from applying pressure to the neck), respiratory and vascular restraints are totally different techniques.

The term 'choke' in this text refers to the act closing off the airway (obstructing one's abilityto breathe),whereas 'neck restraint' refers to the act of reducing the blood flow to and from the brain (the person's ability to breathe remains unobstructed). The phrase 'choking a person out' loosely (and non-precisely) refers to the rendering a person unconscious by either class of techniques. Similarly, the term 'strangulation' often includes both classes of techniques as well. To avoid confusion, I suggest that the term 'choke' only be used when referring to sealing the breath techniques (respiratory restraints) and that the term 'neck restraint' be used to describe sealing the vein techniques (vascular restraints).

Neckhold Anatomy

Types of Neck Hold Techniques
The fundamental differences between sealing the breath (the choke) and sealing the vein (lateral vascular neck restraint or the 'sleeper hold') are evident by the angles of attack on the neck (see the attached figure of the cross-section of the neck). In the former case, the trachea (wind pipe) is readily accessible as it runs vertically down the front center of the neck. The upper part is most noticeable in men as the Adam's apple (thyroid cartilage or larynx) as it protrudes forwards from the neck below the jaw, below which a narrow tube made up of 16-20 cricoid cartilages directs air into the lungs. The bar arm choke (or other choking techniques) will seal the breath by the application of pressure directly across the front to of the throat, usually by the forearm, thereby flattening the airway. Unconsciousness will ensue, but only after the air trapped in the lungs has been consumed (how long can you hold your breath for?).

Sealing the vein on the other hand involves attacking the sides of the neck (lateral vascular neck restraint)where the jugular vein and the carotid artery lie. The person is still capable of breathing, so there is less of a panic reaction than what suffocation brings. Once the oxygen is brought to the lungs via the windpipe, it is transferred to the blood stream where the oxygen is circulated to all parts of the body via the blood vessels. The brain shuts down and the person 'goes to sleep' (hence the term 'sleeper hold') when the jugular veins and carotid arteries are sealed. Unconsciousness will result if the brain is cut off from its oxygen supply after as little as three seconds. Compared to sealing the breath techniques, the onslaught of unconsciousness is rapid and relatively painless.


Arsenault, Alan, D. Chin Na in Ground Fighting: Principles, Theory and Submission Holdsfor all Martial styles. Boston, YMAA Publications, 2003.

Reay Donald, T. and J.W. Eisele, "Dearth From Law Enforcement Neck Holds." The AmericanJournal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Vol. 3, No. 3: 253-258, 1982.

Siddle, Bruce K. Pressure Point and Control Tactics: Defensive Tactics Instructor Manual. Millstadt: PPCT Management Systems Inc., 1999.