Nurse attending to elderly man in a hospital bed hooked up to a respiratory device

What is Hypoxia? Causes and Dangers

The human brain is a marvelous instrument capable of astounding feats. However, it is also a highly sensitive organ that can be damaged through many different causes. Aside from more commonly-known types of brain injuries, such as concussions or traumatic brain injury (TBI), a lack of oxygen can lead to serious and even permanent brain damage. In medical parlance, this condition is referred to as “hypoxia,” also known as oxygen deprivation. 

Hypoxia is a dangerous condition that can happen to any person and is associated with many different causes and dangers.

What is Hypoxia?

The term “hypoxia” refers to a state or condition where the tissues are not adequately oxygenated. This is usually due to an insufficient amount of oxygen in the blood. Nearly all body cells need oxygen to perform their biological functions. 

In particular, the brain needs an oxygen-rich blood supply in order to continue directing the body’s processes. Without oxygen, a person may lose consciousness, and critical systems may begin to shut down. This can place the person at an extremely high risk of further injury, depending on what they are doing at the time. 

What Causes Hypoxia?

Several different causes, factors, illnesses, and injuries can cause hypoxia. These may include:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning 
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Heart attack, stroke, or other heart illnesses
  • Severe asthma
  • Choking
  • Low blood pressure
  • Allergies
  • Strangulation or smothering
  • Hyperventilation
  • Improper sleep positions (especially in infants)

In particular, strangulation or smothering is a common cause of hypoxia. For instance, many of the chokeholds practiced in mixed martial arts or jiu-jitsu can create conditions of hypoxia. These may be highly dangerous if practiced in an uncontrolled or unregulated manner. Such chokeholds are also often employed by law enforcement; many police brutality cases involve hypoxia-related injuries. 

Note that relatively healthy persons can suffer from hypoxia, such as when a person travels to higher altitudes during hiking. Hypoxic brain injuries can also occur in activities like deep-sea diving or scuba diving.

What are the Dangers Associated With Hypoxia?

One of the main dangers associated with hypoxia is that the person will typically lose consciousness. This may then place the person in danger of severe harm, especially if they are driving, hiking, scuba diving, or performing other high-risk activities. 

Besides this, long-term, permanent brain damage can occur, as well as localized damage to other organs or the limbs. Certain functions like speech and motor skills may be affected permanently. 

Woman in blue long sleeve shirt in living room holding chest and gasping for air

Choking is commonly linked to hypoxia.


The timeline from initial hypoxia to brain damage or death depends on the level of oxygen deprivation. Minor hypoxia may cause damage over time, but deep levels of hypoxia can result in near-instantaneous brain damage — sometimes within a minute or two. 

After five minutes, brain cell death begins to occur, and severe brain damage may accompany it as well. Death typically occurs within 10 minutes of complete deprivation, and other conditions may be present as well (such as a heart attack in response to the hypoxia).

What is Anoxia? What Are the Differences Between Anoxia vs. Hypoxia?

The terms “hypoxia” and “anoxia” are often used interchangeably to describe a state of oxygen deprivation. However, there are differences between these words. Specifically, anoxia refers to conditions where there is a complete absence of oxygen supply to an organ’s tissues. In comparison, hypoxia refers to decreased levels of oxygen. 

Both hypoxia and anoxia may be remedied through measures such as oxygenating the victim with an oxygen mask. Symptoms may also be similar, which can include:

  • Confusion or change in mood or personality
  • Loss of color in the face or lips
  • Tingling sensation in the extremities
  • Not breathing or not expelling air
  • Loss of consciousness, fainting, or seizures

However,  a true anoxia state can be much more dangerous. Anoxic brain injury is typically seen as more serious, as it involves a complete or nearly complete absence of oxygen. These types of cases can be fatal and require immediate medical attention.

Who Can Be Held Liable for Causing a Hypoxic Brain Injury?

Hypoxic brain injuries can be severe and may completely alter a victim’s life. They may lose the ability to perform basic functions, which can affect their ability to work and earn a living. It can also cause them a loss of enjoyment of life and can place a strain on relationships and family life.

Many cases of hypoxia injuries may be attributed to the negligence of another person. For instance, heart surgery complications can lead to hypoxic brain injuries. In such cases, a negligent doctor or other medical professional may be held liable for the resulting damages. Birth injuries involving hypoxia or anoxia are another common medical malpractice claim. 

As mentioned, hypoxia can also result from physical attacks, especially those involving choking or strangulation. This can also lead to legal liability for resulting injuries. 

Damages in these types of claims can cover a wide range of losses, including hospital bills, lost wages, loss of the ability to generate income, pain and suffering, and other costs.

Hiring a Lawyer for Help With a Hypoxia Injury Lawsuit

Hypoxia and anoxia injuries can be serious and even life-threatening. They can affect one’s ability to perform everyday tasks, although in many cases, they can be prevented through proper care. If you or a loved one have suffered a hypoxic injury due to another person’s negligence, you may be entitled to legal recovery.

The attorneys at The Brain Injury Law Center have decades of experience dealing with hypoxia and other highly technical brain injury cases. It is our goal to ensure that our clients obtain the justice they deserve for their losses. 

We understand the struggles you may be experiencing and can guide you at each step of the way. Contact us today at (757) 244-7000 for a free, no-obligation consultation regarding your hypoxia case. You can rest assured that we will fight for your legal rights.

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