As a teenager I heard from other teenagers (and read in some thriller spy book) that death could result from a palm strike to the nose, as it would drive a sliver of bone into the brain. Is there more than a vanishingly-small chance that this could happen?

And my grandmaster’s wife said that a knife-hand strike to the side of the neck could result in death.

And my first martial arts instructor said that a back-fist to the temple could result in death.

So are any of these realistically at all likely, short of an extremely powerful strike or a fluke, or the guy subsequently falling and hitting his head?

  • 1
    For these strikes: No. There are others that CAN cause death reliably. But lets face it even if you know how you can't very well practice them.
    – Huw Evans
    Mar 5, 2017 at 10:06
  • @Amorphous_Blob: Do any of these answers satisfy your question? Personally, I think Steve's is the best. Aug 7, 2017 at 18:43
  • Yes, they're all interesting. Aug 8, 2017 at 17:01
  • Re: nose into brain - a beautifully eloquent example of the question has already been asked. :-) (And answered.) skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/18165/… Sep 27, 2017 at 13:39

4 Answers 4


None of what you described typically causes death. They can cause serious injuries, but rarely death.

It's not possible for a palm strike to the nose to break off the bone and drive it into the brain. That's a complete myth. There's no truth to it whatsoever. If anything, the bone will shatter into bits or will break in two. It won't get driven back towards the brain.

A knife-hand strike to the side of the neck is a common strike in martial arts of all kinds for one reason: It causes people to faint. There are many videos showing examples of this on youtube.

What's happening is that the Vagus nerve is being given a whack, and the Vagus nerve is what measures blood pressure going through the major arteries of the neck. If it is struck, it will send the brain a signal that the blood pressure is way too high. So the brain responds with a signal telling the body to dramatically lower the blood pressure. Since the blood pressure wasn't actually high to begin with (it was just a glitch caused by the strike to the neck), blood pressure suddenly drops so low that it causes the brain to faint.

It has been known to cause death in rare cases when someone suffers a stroke because of it. Not only is it rare, but because the stroke can occur up to days after the impact, this technique can't be used reliably for the purpose of killing someone on the spot.

Strikes to the arteries in the neck sometimes dislodge arterial plaques on the inside of the arteries, especially in older people who have more plaque build-up in their arteries. This plaque then travels up into the brain and clogs the smaller blood vessels inside of the brain. That causes a stroke which can lead to death.

Strokes can also be caused by tears in the arteries of the neck which then causes blood clots. The blood clots become dislodged and travel to the brain, where they clog smaller blood vessels in the brain. And that causes a stroke.

It's rare that we see this happen in martial arts today or as a result of real fighting. Part of the reason is that it's rare to find anyone able to successfully perform a knife chop to the neck on someone who is moving around and able to block it or flinch out of the way. It turns out it's a lot harder to do than martial arts practice would suggest.

This is more frequently documented as a side-effect of Chiropractic neck manipulation. Chiropractors perform a sudden twist of the neck. It's a bad idea, because that procedure has a significant risk of tearing the arteries of the neck and causing strokes. Don't let anyone try it on you.

Citation: http://www.webmd.com/stroke/news/20140807/could-chiropractic-manipulation-of-your-neck-trigger-a-stroke

Some people suggest the knife-hand chop to the side of the neck is actually severing the nerves of the spine or is breaking the spine itself. The muscles and tendons of the neck provide a great deal of resistance to any strikes from the side. That alone would diffuse the force of the strike enough so that it couldn't break any bones of the spine.

Beyond that, the head and neck aren't really held in place. It's like hitting a speed bag. The head will move. So the neck won't receive the full force of the strike.

The vertebrae of the neck are mostly immune to this kind of a strike, also. It's almost impossible to break the spine with a strike of any kind. That's because of evolution. The way the spine is shaped makes it really hard to break using a strike of any kind. It usually requires a weapon of some sort.

About the only way you could damage the nerves of the spine would be to attack an area of the spine that is closer to the surface and therefore less protected. You could hit the back of the neck or the top of the shoulder. You wouldn't break the vertebrae this way, but you could cause an injury to the nerves, which could cause death.

Attacking the neck can also cause the head to bob. If it's done very quickly and with a lot of force, it's possible the head could snap some bones of the spine. And that could cause death. It relies on a completely relaxed neck, which is almost never the case in a real fight. We don't really see this happening at all in any street fights or professional fighting.

Just to reiterate, knife-hand strikes to the side of the neck rarely cause death. And it can't be used reliably for that purpose. When death occurs because of this strike, it's usually unpredictable and often caused by a stroke later on.

As for the temple, it hurts to get hit there, and it can result in a knock-out or a concussion, but not usually death.

One of the things to keep in mind is that a lot of martial arts "knowledge" has been passed down from generation to generation. Some of it may have been based on a misunderstanding of what was actually observed. Some of it is exaggeration (usually for marketing purposes). Most of it is just plain myth.

As for stuff based on real observations, something may have been seen as the cause of death. But was it the sole cause of death, or were there other factors? Like in the case I mentioned above where a knife-hand strike happened to kill a guy, it wasn't because the strike broke the neck or something. It was because it dislodged some plaque and caused a stroke. But again, that's not a common outcome.

And another thing to realize is that these arts come from times before modern medical science. Back then, it's possible for a palm strike to the nose to actually cause death. It wouldn't have been from pushing the nasal bone back into the brain as people may have thought back then. Instead, it could be due to a simple concussion or some other head trauma which is easily diagnosed and treated nowadays.

I'm just glad you didn't mention dim-mak, the so-called "death touch" or "delayed death touch". That's a whole discussion in and of itself. And I would tell you it's basically all myth and misunderstanding, just like above.

Many martial artists end up chasing these "amazingly powerful if true" kinds of things only to realize it's basically a myth and a waste of time. I spent quite a bit of time studying dim-mak and acupuncture, for example, and I can honestly say it was a waste of time and a red herring. Don't bother.

Lastly, I just want to say that fighting of any sort can cause death, often in unintended ways. Head trauma can still be deadly in modern times. Just punching someone in the face or head can kill them. It happens. Blood clots happen and can kill.

People sometimes go back home after a fight, get a headache, take an aspirin, and go to bed. They don't realize it's something serious, so they don't go see a doctor. Some don't wake up after going to bed. So, always get yourself checked out by a doctor if you ever get into a fight, especially if you got hit in the head.

Hope that helps.

  • 1
    Whiplash is actually the name for the muscles tightening to protect the neck from what I have read. This is not a cause of death although damage to the spine could be.
    – Huw Evans
    Mar 5, 2017 at 10:03
  • Good point about whiplash. Yeah, I'm referring to the physical snap-back caused by a strike to the neck. The head will rotate and dip down. Do it fast enough and with enough force, and you can get nerve damage and possible a tearing of the arteries. So it can be serious, but rare, and not very predictable. Also, in a fight, your neck muscles are probably very tense and ready for the impending impact. This effect is best observed when the neck is loose. Mar 5, 2017 at 22:22
  • I've removed the whiplash mention and clarified. Mar 6, 2017 at 18:54
  • I cannot recall the exact source, but I recall seeing a depiction in one of the US army training manuals of a horizontal knife hand strike to the bridge of the nose (more or less between the eyes) which was supposed to be potentially fatal. This might be what the whole idea of "Punching somebody's nose into their brain" is based on. If I can locate the source I will post it here. Mar 21, 2017 at 1:55
  • There has been a lot of Asian martial arts influence on the army, starting with classical jujitsu, then judo, then karate and TKD, and finally now BJJ and MMA. Those earlier army manuals were likely showing stuff that individual members of the army picked up from training on those arts. It's just repeating a myth, that's all. Mar 21, 2017 at 14:57

No. The force required to drive a nasal bone into the brain would be enough to kill the target regardless of said nasal bones being present (we are talking about high speed, head on car collision levels of energy here). The skull is pretty resilient.

The knife-hand to the neck is pretty dubious. A powerful adult striking a small child in such a manner could result in serious injury or death, but two similarly sized combatants are likely to end up with nothing worse than painfully bruised soft tissue.

The back fist to the temple is also dubious. The temple area of the skull isn't particularly thin bone. What is special about it is the relative flatness. The curvature of our skulls tends to cause blows to glance off without delivering their full payload of force. The flat-ish temple area makes glancing blows less likely. A back-fist, like many other body-twisting haymakers, uses circular momentum to deliver more energy to a strike than arm and shoulder rotation alone. An optimal attack to a flat target can deliver a lot of energy. However, this would very rarely be life threatening. Again the skull's bones are very strong, stronger than the bones in one's hands. More people break their hands punching someone's head than skulls fracturing from someone's hand strike.

So, all in all, these are almost all hype, myth, and downright fabrication.


Because I don't believe they've been mentioned yet, two other "insta-death" attacks that I was told about when learning martial arts, and an honorable mention:

  • Kicking the inside of the thigh will create a deadly blood clot in the femoral artery - The concept behind this is that a sharp blow to the femoral artery will cause a clot, which will eventually go to the brain or heart to kill someone. It sounds vaguely plausible because there are many stories of people suffering trauma to the femoral artery, such as in car accidents, who die before anyone (including themselves) even realizes they're injured. The key here is that those injuries generally involve opening the femoral artery to the outside. With such a large artery, blood can exit the body rapidly, even fairly painlessly. And since the blood is moving from the heart to the lower limbs, it's unlikely for a clot to "travel up to the heart" to stop it. The more common injury from blunt force trauma is thrombosis from either a blood-clot or dislodged plaque.
  • A sharp blow to the chest (aka the heart punch) - Yes, this can stop the heart, but it requires a lot of force and it's pretty random with the most likely times for it to happen are in a car crash (steering column) or baseball (baseball). It has been seen on occasion in boxing and in hockey, but it's a rare and random thing. Incidentally, this is also sort of the theory behind the thing you see in movies of striking of the chest of a dying person. The precordial thump can disrupt a dangerous arrhythmia of the heart, but it's a low-percentage maneuver which requires trained timing.
  • Boxing the ears - I don't think I've heard of anyone suggesting this as a kill method outside of the playground where it was one of those scary rumors that some kid had died from having their ears boxed and the pressure was too much for their skull. Boxing the ears can rupture the ear drums, creating disorientation and deafness, but I cannot find a single case of anyone being killed by it.
  • 1
    Re: the heart punch - The actual mechanism is related to the depolarization/repolarization of the heart muscle. If a sharp blow is delivered at the same time as the repolarization is occuring, it can disrupt the rhythm and stop the heart. You see this a few times a year in baseball, actually. The technical term is commotio cordis.
    – JohnP
    May 11, 2018 at 14:10

To follow up on this from a trained martial artists perspective :

The strike to the side of the neck is aimed at the Carotid artery, there is an area just above the Carotid where artery's branch to the external and internal Carotid arteries. If you are trained in the placement of the arteries, and you strike at the right place , it will send an interruption to the brain which will stun them. If you hit both sides of the carotid in quick succession in the correct place, it will shut down their brain and basically have them comatose and quickly deceased.

You can not kill someone with a palm strike to the nose. However, you can kill someone with a strong palm strike under their chin, forcing their head back and snapping their neck.

You can kill someone if you punch them in the heart, but this requires punching with Qi. Once you learn to control Qi, then you can direct your energy , and if your intention is to stop their heart, so be it.

You can accidentally kill someone by hitting them and having them hit their head on the cement, or accidentally bounce their brain off their skull too hard and cause permanent damage.

You can kill someone or seriously injure them with wrestling moves. Picking your opponent up and then slamming them on their head or neck causes massive and permanent injuries.

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    It would be nice if you could produce some proof of these claims, especially as they run contrary to all of the answers (Also from trained martial artist's perspectives) that have been posted to date.
    – JohnP
    May 11, 2018 at 14:12
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    Also of interest: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/18165/…
    – JohnP
    May 11, 2018 at 14:12

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