Suspension Trauma

Posted by Helen Scott Taylor | 4:18 PM | | 3 comments »

This might sound like a strange blog topic for a writer’s blog, but I discovered this recently in connection with my work and I was shocked that I’d never heard of the risk before. I decided I’d share with you in the hope it might help someone in the future.

Sometimes when I stand in line for a long time without moving much, apart from getting bored and frustrated, I start to feel lightheaded and shaky, even break out in a sweat and suffer nausea. These are the first symptoms of suspension trauma. Not that I’m ‘suspended’ when I’m lining up, of course, but my body is reacting in the same way as if I were, because I’m upright and motionless for so long.

Suspension trauma is the physiological response of the body to being held motionless in an upright position for too long. The blood starts to pool in the legs because the leg muscles aren’t working—contracting and relaxing—to help pump the blood back up the legs to the torso. This leads to lack of blood in the head, which can cause you to faint. If you are standing in line at the bank, fainting to the floor might be embarrassing, but it serves the purpose of getting the body in a horizontal position so blood can flow from the legs back into the body and head and all is well.

The problem becomes serious if you are restrained in an upright position and not moving your legs. Examples of this are some sports, such as parachuting, or hanging while climbing, or for workers hanging in a harness, either while working, or in a safety harness if they fall from a building. The same physiological effect threatens injured people on a stretcher who have to be carried vertically to move them from the scene of an accident.

If someone had asked me what ill effects a person would suffer if left hanging in a harness, I’d have guessed that after an hour or more might they might have deadness in the limbs from lack of movement, or cramps. The reality is far more serious and frightening. The timing varies from person to person, but in general, according to the experts, anyone hanging in a harness or forced to remain upright and unmoving for longer than five minutes is liable to faint from lack of blood to the brain. Things then get worse fast. If someone loses consciousness for this reason, unless the person is rescued within ten to fifteen minutes they will die.

Shocking as this is, the solution is simple. For anyone likely to be in this situation, they should be equipped with a harness that allows them to have their thighs horizontal, in other words, in a sitting position. That’s why, when you see climbers taking a break, their harnesses often allow them to sit back, rather than leave the legs dangling. It’s also safe to be hanging as long as you are active. All the while climbers are climbing, pushing with their legs against the rock face and working, the activity of the leg muscles keeps the blood flowing back up the legs and prevents any problems. Usually a parachute jump doesn’t last long enough to cause a problem—unless you are hung up in a tree.

Once someone is rescued, the danger isn’t over. If they have been hanging for more than a few minutes there is another problem to contend with--reflow syndrome. This happens because the blood that’s been trapped in the legs is filled with toxins from the muscles and all the oxygen normally carried in the blood has been used. If this is allowed to flow back into the body, this can lead to death. The casualty should be kept in a sitting position and not allowed to lie flat until they reach the hospital and receive professional medical attention.

For more information, check out this website:


  1. Mary Marvella // June 17, 2008 at 7:33 PM  

    Wow! I had no idea. Of course I seldom stay still, even if I stand for a long time. I also hate tall stools and chairs that leave my feet dangling.

  2. Nightingale // June 18, 2008 at 9:24 AM  

    What an interesting post, Helen. Where do you get these different ideas for the blog? Very enlightening. I'll leave my desk every five minutes!

  3. Helen Scott Taylor // June 18, 2008 at 2:16 PM  

    I discovered this when I was doing risk assessments for the people I employ. For some jobs they climb on roofs and are secured with safety harnesses so they don't fall off. I've now made sure that even if they fall over, they can never fall off the roof and dangle in the harness. I was shocked how dangerous the risk to health is.