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The disturbing rise of the deadly childhood 'choking game'

Researchers take a fresh look at a risky thrill that's been around for years, and health experts are alarmed at what they find

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics finds that 6 percent of Oregon eighth-graders have played the "choking game," in which thrill-seekers cut off oxygen and blood flow to the brain for kicks. The potentially deadly practice has been around for years, but it now seems to be increasing in popularity, possibly because kids who have done it may be encouraging others to try it by posting videos on YouTube. Just how dangerous is the choking game? Here, a brief guide:

What is the choking game?It's not really a game. It involves choking oneself using a rope or belt, or having a friend do the honors with a choke hold. The idea is to cut off blood flow to the brain just enough to experience the sensation of nearly passing out.

Why on earth would kids do such a thing?Cutting off the brain's oxygen supply induces "a warm, fuzzy, light-headed sensation similar to feeling high," says Miriam Weiner at U.S. News & World Report. When blood flow is restored, kids "see stars and the feeling is described as a rush," Thomas A. Andrew, New Hampshire's chief medical examiner, tells NPR. The trouble is, the choking game can cause brain damage, and kids frequently push it too far, causing them to pass out and risk stroke, or even death.

How often is the choking game fatal?The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed 82 deaths between 1995 and 2007 to the choking game. Child health experts say the numbers are probably even higher, as some choking game deaths are probably mistakenly labeled suicides.

What sort of kids play the choking game?All kinds, apparently. Researchers found that teens who had tried the choking game were more likely than their peers to experiment with sex, alcohol, and drugs. But "it's also practiced by 'good kids,'" Dr. Hatim Omar, chief of adolescent medicine at the University of Kentucky, tells ABC News, "who do not want to do drugs... They perceive that this is a 'legal' way to get high."

What can be done to address the problem?Robert Nystrom of the Oregon Public Health Division, one of the authors of the new study, says the important thing is for parents and pediatricians to watch for warning signs, such as bruising around the neck, headaches, and bloodshot eyes. We have to raise awareness, says Judy Rogg, whose 12-year-old son, Erik, died playing the choking game. "And kids need to really understand just what can happen to them."

Sources: ABC News, NPR, Oregonian, U.S. News & World Report

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