I never suffocated myself so not entirely sure, but when you suffocate, it's painful, right? But of course different kind of pain than being injured or sick. What I'm wondering is, if the "painful" (or suffering) experience of suffocation involves the standard pain pathway mediated by nociceptors? Or is it some other kind of pain pathway due to a lack of oxygen? I don't mean psychological pain.

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    $\begingroup$ I've heard it more commonly described as a sensation of panic rather than of pain, resulting from a rising [CO2] as detected by carotid chemoreceptors $\endgroup$ – Rory M Apr 26 '15 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ It looks like this question is based on an unfounded assumption that asphyxia should be painful. Hold your breath for as long as you can. Does it hurt?... I vote to close this question as opinion based as it is likely to generate wild guesses for answers as to whether nociception is involved yes or no. Quite frankly it is impossible to investigate this issue thoroughly due to experimental and ethical difficulties :) $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jun 22 '15 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @RoryM and probably also J receptors in the lung itself. $\endgroup$ – De Novo Feb 27 '19 at 17:25

This is more of a hypothesis

I am not sure if suffocation per se would cause pain. Asphyxia, as RoryM indicated in their comments, can lead to anxiety and panic but not really pain. However, forceful breathing may lead to muscular fatigue which may result in pain. Pain induced by muscle fatigue is called myalgia. Myalgia is possibly triggered by low pH generated by lactic acid, via ASIC3 (Acid Sensing Ion Channel) receptor. Carbon dioxide has no role in this process either directly or as a synergist.


Alan R. Light, Charles J. Vierck, and Kathleen C. Light. (2010) Translation from Mouse Sensory Neurons to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndromes. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; Chapter 11 (Myalgia and Fatigue)

  • $\begingroup$ I think connecting myalgia and asphyxia is kind of far-reached. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myalgia $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jun 22 '15 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ @AliceD this is farthest I can go :) I'll add a disclaimer $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Jun 22 '15 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ With a disclaimer you have my vote :) And a tiny edit ;) +1 $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jun 22 '15 at 13:00

Being no expert on pain, I will share some thoughts on the issue.

According to the following site(http://www.helpforpain.com/arch2000dec.htm), there are two types of pain: nociceptive and neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain involves the central and peripheral nervous system, a possibility I would discount due to no apparent link to suffocation.

Thus, it is likely that, if "traditional pain" is felt, nociceptors are involved. A possible pathway is the decrease in oxygen, possibly detected by certain nociceptors which respond to lead to pain. However, I have not suffocated either, not met anyone suffocating so this is only a possibility.

  • $\begingroup$ Kudos for the attempt to answer this difficult question. However, it seems to be a wild guess and a reference is really needed here. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Apr 27 '15 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. the problem is that I could not find any :(. If anything, I just wanted to add some food for thought; I'll keep looking though! $\endgroup$ – Andy Apr 27 '15 at 3:36
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, thank you :) Does anyone know how I can get more answers? Can I ask this question as another new question? $\endgroup$ – Kappy May 10 '15 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ This is a reasonable stab at things, but has a number of inaccuracies (as does the website linked as a reference). I wouldn't call the pain of suffocation "traditional pain", as it is not usually described in such a way, but one thing that is correct here is the likely receptor is a particular type of nociceptor -- the "J-receptor". $\endgroup$ – De Novo Feb 27 '19 at 17:23

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