Can You Die From Hanging Upside Down?

Face turning red, eyes feeling squashed, a pulsing in your ears: hanging upside down is not a pleasant experience, but how dangerous can being suspended the wrong way up really be? The truth is that it is possible to die from hanging upside down because the posture puts undue pressure on certain organs. The human body really evolved to be a certain way up.

The Nutty Putty Cave incident

An example of the dangers of hanging upside down is the Nutty Putty cave incident, which highlights the dangers of spelunking. The cave, West of Utah Lake, is named after the viscous clay on its walls, which oozes and feels a little like Silly Putty when pushed.

In 2009, John Edward Jones and his brother Josh got lost and found themselves in an un-mapped part of the cave. John crawled into an opening angled 70 degrees downwards, but became wedged and couldn’t get out.

For the next day, rescuers tried to retrieve him as he lay face down in the passage. The position he was in put great strain on his heart to pump blood out of the brain, which is usually assisted by gravity. Rescuers tried to get him out using a pulley system, but it came loose and failed. After 27 hours, John died due to cardiac arrest, and the cave was sealed off with him still inside a week after his death.

Are our organs fixed?

A clever organ called the mesentery keeps our digestive organs in place when we’re standing upright, preventing organs like the liver from smushing into the organs beneath it. The mesentery extends from the back of the abdominal cavity to the intestines, and so while it can stabilize our gooey parts to some extent, it’s not enough to defy gravity.

Our lungs and cardiovascular system both benefit from gravity making it easier to do their jobs, helping our chests to fill with air and blood to move around the body. However, turn a person upside down, and that all changes.

Why being upside down can be deadly

Research into 10 cases of people who had died in a head-down position revealed that heart failure is the most likely contributor to death in people who get stuck upside down. 

“Based on these cases, it is observed that elderly people, and in particular elderly with preexisting cardiovascular diseases, seem to be more prone to death in a head-down position than others,” wrote the study authors. 

“This suggests that final heart failure is the cause of death rather than cerebral or pulmonary dysfunction. Results from human and animal experiments and observations under true and simulated microgravitational conditions confirm this assumption, suggesting that a prolonged, markedly elevated burden of work for the heart because of increased volume load in an inverted body position eventually leads to death by heart failure.”

So for a long and healthy life, it pays to stay on your feet.

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