Sunday, November 20, 2011

Apple #559: Getting the Wind Knocked Out of You

A week or so ago, a bunch of friends and I were watching a football game. After one play, one of the players was lying on the field not moving for a few moments. It turned out not to be serious, and we speculated that maybe he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. Then we realized we weren't sure what causes that.

What exactly happens when you get the wind knocked out of you?

  • Basically, your diaphragm stops working correctly.
  • Normally, your diaphragm, which is the muscle beneath your lungs, contacts to pull air into your lungs and relaxes to push air out.
Diagram of the diaphragm. This seems the opposite of what you'd expect, but when the diaphragm contracts, the area in your chest enlarges and allows air to rush in. In other words, you inhale. When the diaphragm relaxes, the chest cavity gets smaller, air rushes out, and you exhale.
(Photo from Merck Manuals)

Here's the motion of the diaphragm in a video:

  • The diaphragm is controlled by a bunch of nerve cells called the solar plexus. Medical professionals call this bunch of nerves the celiac plexus.
  • The solar / celiac plexus lives pretty much in the central-most part of you. It's below the xiphoid process, behind the stomach, but in front of the aorta (major artery from the heart). In other words, it's tucked away in that soft spot beneath where your ribs open out.
  • A sudden, strong blow to your solar / celiac plexus shuts off those nerve cells which in turn stuns the diaphragm muscle, and it spasms.
  • I always thought "spasm" meant that a muscle flutters or twitches. Nope. "Spasm" means that a muscle suddenly and involuntarily contracts and stays that way for some time.
  • So, when your diaphragm spasms, that means it zaps into contracted mode and it stays that way. It's stuck in the position that pulls air into your lungs.
  • That's another weird thing about all this because when you get the wind knocked out of you, it feels like you can't get any breath into your lungs, can't inhale. But your diaphragm is stuck in the inhale position.
  • But since it's stuck there, it can't contract any farther to bring in more air, nor can it relax to push air out, allowing you to inhale new air. So it feels like you've got no air in there.
  • The only thing to do when you're in this situation is wait for your diaphragm to relax out of its spasm -- which it will do shortly, though when you feel like you can't breathe, "shortly" will seem like a long time.
  • You can help your diaphragm relax by lying on your back, bending your knees and pulling your legs up to your chest.
  • Then take long, slow, calming breaths. As your breathe, concentrate on making the breathing happen. This will help get your diaphragm working again as well as helping you to calm down, and it will also get more oxygen circulating so your whole system will start to feel better.

It happens to animals, too. Here, one cat knocks the wind out of the other.

Nemours, KidsHealth, Getting the Wind Knocked Out of You 
Straight Dope, What happens when the wind gets knocked out of you? and message board on the subject 
Motorcross Action Magazine, Just Breathe: Getting the Wind Knocked Out of You 
SportMedBC, Getting the Wind Knocked Out of You 
Merriam Webster, solar plexus and celiac plexus


  1. Nice apple, never knew that. But let's be honest - you just chost this topic so you could say "diagram of the diaphragm"!

    - Mr. Humbly Suggest

  2. fork stealer11/22/2011 5:11 PM

    Great topic! It also must be possible for this to happen through the nerves in the back- I had the same "wind knocked out" feeling once when I had a painful back spasm in my middle back.

  3. I have to say, I've had the wind knocked out of me, and it's no fun. I fell about 20-30 feet off a kite tube (which has since been recalled from serious injuries and deaths!) Got the wind knocked out of me (and I was in the water so that doesn't help the not being able to breathe/panic factor) bruised a lung too. Ouch.


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