I'm looking for a word that means "to be unable to breathe due to constriction or compression of the chest (lungs/ribs)." Does such a word exist, and does anyone know how best to (succinctly) express this concept?

Note: I am looking for a word that is more specific than "suffocate" that specifically refers to the chest (lungs/rib cage) impact.


It's not quite as morbid of a question as it sounds. I was in the car with my son (in a car seat), and he was talking about how he didn't want his five-point harness (i.e. the "seat belt" part of a car seat) to be too tight or else he would "choke." He clearly meant that he wouldn't be able to breathe properly in that scenario, but I believed that choke wasn't the correct word. This led to an interesting conversation about what the correct word would in fact be. We settled on "suffocate." However, this, to my ear, sounds like it inherently has an implication of airway obstruction in the vicinity of the mouth/nose. And even if not, the word is certainly more generic than the word that I'm trying to identify.


For reference, here are the words that appear to be relevant. All of these definitions are from http://www.merriam-webster.com/.


  • to become unable to breathe usually because something gets stuck in your throat or because the air is not good for breathing

  • to cause (someone) to stop breathing by squeezing the throat

  • to make (someone) unable to breathe in a normal way [Note: this definition would presumably apply to my scenario, above, but it still doesn't "sound right" because of the prevalence of the first two definitions.]


  • to die because you are unable to breathe [Note: this is probably the closest match. It doesn't mention mouth/nose as a key part of the definition. Is that just my own connotation? Additionally, it appears to be quite a generic definition, and doesn't offer the specificity of the chest compression instance that I'm curious about.]

  • to kill (someone) by making breathing impossible

  • to be uncomfortable because there is not enough fresh air

drown (for the sake of comparison)

  • to die by being underwater too long and unable to breathe

  • to hold (a person or animal) underwater until death occurs

  • to cover (something) completely with a liquid

(Note: the full definition goes on to specify: to suffocate by submersion especially in water." So I interpret that as "drowning is a subset of the ways in which suffocation can occur." Thus, the word drown and the word I'm trying to find would be of equal specificity.)

  • 2
    Well, "squeeze the life out of" fits pretty well, but of course it's not a single word.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 4, 2015 at 19:44
  • Crushed? You can be crushed to death, though if that's specifically because you can't breathe or because of other internal damage, I don't know.
    – VampDuc
    Nov 4, 2015 at 19:51
  • 3
    In the context of snakes, you could use "constriction." In other contexts, this word might not be as clear, as it has other meanings as well.
    – cobaltduck
    Nov 4, 2015 at 19:53
  • 2
    I once foolishly donned a 7mm Farmer John style two-piece wetsuit on top of a 3mm fullsuit for diving under lake ice, and nearly bought the farm when I went in. That is termed in diving circles a "neoprene squeeze." I am not sure the relevant meaning would survive the stripping of the modifying noun there, though. Nov 4, 2015 at 20:46
  • I remember a Law & Order episode where this was done to a pregnant woman to steal her baby. I think it was called "burping". Maybe a telephile can tell us! May 29, 2020 at 16:42

3 Answers 3


One term appears to be Mechanical / traumatic asphyxia

Mechanical / traumatic asphyxia: external compression of chest, preventing normal respiration. Forensics Asphyxia Author: Lindsey Harle, M.D.
Pathology Outlines

I removed my reference to a Wikipedia article that used the term compressive asphyxia. It appears that the article may be corrupted. I'm no longer sure how widespread that particular term is.

  • 2
    And if its compressed from the front?
    – WS2
    Nov 4, 2015 at 19:58
  • @WS2 - Good point. I didn't read that carefully enough. I took it to mean that the front of the chest was pushed posteriorly. I'm now wondering if that article is correct. I'll find a better one. Nov 4, 2015 at 21:07
  • 2
    @ WS2 Wikipedia quotes an article by a Richard Jones, 'Strangulation', from www.forensicmed.co.uk. The article is no longer available on the website, and no other source for the article is apparent. I suspect that it is a Wiki typo, and that the second sentence is meant to read '...Compressive asphyxia also occurs...' The text (as chasly quotes it) appears in multiple locations on the internet, but it seems likely that they are all referencing Wikipedia rather than the original article. It looks like sloppy work on Wikipedia, in the creation and maintenance of the article.
    – John Mack
    Nov 4, 2015 at 21:09

Burking is the term applied to asphyxial deaths that result from someone sitting on another in a fashion that restricts breathing. The victim dies from asphyxia. This is a form of Mechanical Asphyxia, where the movement of the chest wall is restricted to the point that breathing isn't possible.

Source: Burking Still Lives After 200 Years | The Crime Fiction Writer's

  • 1
    Is this all a quote from the blog? Feb 25, 2021 at 3:26

I think the word could possibly be burking. I was reading a crime novel. These serial killers were holding the victim down and sitting on the chest until they could not breath this was called burking. Apparently murders were commited like this in the 1800s to use bodies for research.

  • 2
    According to the dictionaries I've checked, burking always refers to murder. I wouldn't use it to refer to an accident, like the hypothetical situation mentioned in the question would be.
    – Laurel
    May 4, 2018 at 6:53
  • 3
    The extensive Wikipedia entry for "Burke and Hare" suggests that in the actual murders (at least the first two), the "burking" by Burke consisted of lying across the upper torso of the victim while what might be called the "haring" by Hare was the suffocation of the victim—that is, the actual cause of death. As Wikipedia puts it, "Hare suffocat[ed] their victim while Burke lay over the body to stop movement and noise."
    – Sven Yargs
    May 4, 2018 at 7:45

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