How long could a person live after having his or her arm cut off?
September 5, 2009 3:00 AM   Subscribe

How long could a person live after having his or her arm cut off?

I was watching my DVD of Kill Bill, for about the umpteenth time, and I wondered about the scene where Uma Thurman's character cuts off the arm of a pretty lady at the shoulder. The lady has a lot of blood spurting out of her shoulder, and she screams at bit, but by the end of the movie seems pretty OK about losing her arm.

Does anyone, maybe with some medical knowledge, have a good idea about how long a person could live after having an arm cut off before dying of loss of blood, or of shock, or probably both? In the movie, she lives at least 30 minutes, probably more, which I reckon could never happen. What do other people think?
posted by edavidoff to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a doctor, but I reckon the primary issue with the loss of a limb is blood loss. (The secondary issue, further down the road would be infection, I'm guessing.) If the person is able to take measures to stave off the blood loss, by applying pressure or a tourniquet, you could live longer than one might think.

If you're not treating it AT ALL, you would bleed out in a matter of minutes—you simply don't have that much blood in you, and it pumps through rather quickly.

(Remember the favorite story of the guy who amputated his own arm after a boulder fell onto it whilst hiking. He then hiked OUT of the canyon to find help.)

Back to Kill Bill, if she wraps it and has pressure applied, yeah, she might make it that half hour.
posted by disillusioned at 3:18 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

By the way, shock and loss of blood are basically the same thing. I can't think of anything else that would kill you (in the short term) if you lost an arm.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:43 AM on September 5, 2009

I remember learning from an EMT instructor that when an artery is cut cleanly (and not on an angle) it will sort of curl in on itself to close off the flow of blood. If it is cut at an angle, or more commonly torn, it cannot repair itself this way. Seems like the clean cut that Uma gave the pretty lady would have been the good sort of cut. Maybe that guy was totally lying to me though.
posted by orme at 4:27 AM on September 5, 2009

It takes a lot longer than you'd think to bleed out from a brachial sever. I mean it's still pretty fast, but hypovolemic shock really sets in fast and your body does everything to keep you alive. You'll lose consciousness pretty quickly, but that's because your brain tells you to so that it can slow your heart, breathing, and respirations to keep that blood in your core and in your brain, maximizing your chances for survival.

A simple pair of hemostats would be enough to control the bleeding indefinitely to get you to the emergency medical center.

Femoral bleeds, on the other hand....they fuck you up with a quickness.
posted by TomMelee at 5:03 AM on September 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

interesting metafilter thread about Aron Ralston that disillusioned mentions.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:13 AM on September 5, 2009

Rider question: What's the difference with the femoral artery, that it'll kill you x times faster?
posted by kalimac at 7:28 AM on September 5, 2009

posted by flabdablet at 7:54 AM on September 5, 2009

Yep. Bigger = higher blood flow = faster loss of blood. Also note that blood pressure drops very quickly once the volume of blood starts to decrease. So while you might get a few seconds of spraying (though nothing as dramatic as in Kill Bill), it'll reduce to pouring fairly quickly.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:25 PM on September 5, 2009

huh, cool. thanks :)
posted by kalimac at 2:25 PM on September 5, 2009

I read in the WaPo article about the secret service that if your femoral artery is severed you have ten seconds. And if you're secret service, you are expected to keep firing.
posted by mecran01 at 4:05 PM on September 5, 2009

A girl named Mary Bell Vincent was raped and had her forearms cut off with an ax by her attacker, and she survived despite being abandoned in a ditch and left for dead... I have no idea how long she survived before being found, but I'm sure it was more than a few minutes.
posted by OolooKitty at 7:37 PM on September 5, 2009

The flow rate through any given kind of pipe is (somewhat counterintuitively) roughly proportional to the fourth power of the diameter, other things being equal. That is, if pipe A is twice the diameter of pipe B, it will support sixteen times the flow rate for a given pressure. And the femoral artery really is quite big.
posted by flabdablet at 1:57 AM on September 6, 2009

Yup, what they said. Semi-interestingly, there are 3 places in your body you can bleed to death internally. Your thighs, your abdomen, and your chest.

That's why wilderness first responders and EMT's learn femoral traction and splinting early on and hardcore----because a bad fall can snap your femur, and a snapped femur = bleed to death if you're not extremely careful.
posted by TomMelee at 6:50 AM on September 6, 2009

Though she didn't have any fight scenes, the character mentioned was presumably a highly skilled martial artist (of the seemingly supernatural type featured in pulp Hong Kong flicks). She no doubt would be able to use her mystical skills to prolong her life substantially.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:38 AM on September 6, 2009

In previous eras, when a thief's hand was cut off according to Sharia law, the stump was doused immediately with hot pitch, which both cauterized and sealed the wound, apparently. The same was done for triage in military conflicts.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:52 PM on September 6, 2009

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