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In a move often seen in action movies (very often!), someone takes the head of another person with both hands, usually from behind, and twists it only once or twice in order to break their neck. A sound of breaking bone is normally played.

It is also claimed to be real by some martial arts teachers:

I'm going to break the neck so once again this is only in a life or death situation and it's very serious; don't play around with this. [...] It's kind of a swift motion; I let go, release the jaw and push and pull back.

I'm skeptical that this is possible, at least as easy as depicted. The neck bones and muscles should provide quite some resistance. The movie depictions may be largely exaggerated and I think that practically none of the martial arts teachers have had the chance to test if it really works.

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I don't have a source for this, which is why I'm not posting it as an answer, however, I take Krav Maga with former Israeli special forces, and US Marines, who all say, that from experience and from military training (not all of them have actually done it themselves), that it is much harder to break a neck than what is done in the movies. Usually they won't break someones neck, but instead stab the back of the neck (I apologize for being a little graphic) We will do regular moves in practice with more force than what it appears to be in the movies, with no damage or injuries. –  Ephraim Apr 4 '12 at 7:16
    
I did some quick research and it seems to be theoretically possible in that there isn't anything that is going to stop you from doing it with regards to anatomy, but actually pulling it off seems to be much harder in practice due to the anatomy of a neck. Likewise, from a martial arts perspective, if you are in the position to do that to someone you would be better off just using a choke hold on them. –  rjzii Apr 4 '12 at 12:17
    
@RobZ: I am interested in how you reached those conclusions: How much torque is required to overcome the neck muscles and break the bones (if that is what is really happening?), compared to how a human could provide? How is a choke hold a better move? –  Oddthinking Apr 4 '12 at 14:50
    
The martial arts teachers I had claimed it would be highly unlikely, given the strength of the muscles supporting the neck. –  Dave Hillier Apr 4 '12 at 14:57
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As a scientist, I believe this should be tested! –  Ivo Flipse Apr 4 '12 at 15:26

2 Answers 2

First, with regards to actually breaking the neck itself, it depends on exactly what type of fracture is involved, but cadaver studies have shown a range of 840 to 1500 N to cause the C2 vertebrae to be fractured [1]. A C2 fracture is highly correlated with high mortality but said injury is also most commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents [2] which gives you an idea as to the force involved with the injury. Given that amateur boxers have been shown to generate up to 8000 N of force with a hook punch [3] it is within the realm of possibility to fracture the vertebrae under the right conditions.

So breaking the vertebra is possible; however, the issue the video and those like it is that you need to apply the pressure the right way and the neck itself is built with a fair degree of flexibility [4] so it's not just a matter of twisting the neck a given way.

This takes us to the next point, as some blogs have already pointed out, the technique she is describing in and of itself doesn't seem like a viable technique. Neck cranks or spinal locks are taught; however, you will note that they tend to require that additional leverage be applied to the body and have been known to injure the person they are applied to.

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This also assumes that it's sufficiently fast that the victim cannot move their body to compensate. –  Dave Hillier Apr 4 '12 at 16:28
    
@DaveHillier - Right, that's also part of the reason why the technique demonstrated in the video is highly questionable. Without leverage to keep the shoulders from moving, there is nothing stopping then compensate for the twisting motion. –  rjzii Apr 4 '12 at 17:04
    
You also do not need to break the neck to kill someone simply do enough damage to the spinal cord to stop the heart and/or lungs. –  Chad Apr 4 '12 at 19:26
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@Chad - Right, but in movies it is implied that the bones are broken via the "breaking" sound that you hear. –  rjzii Apr 4 '12 at 19:39
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The neck and spine are very strong in some ways but delicately put together in others. Learned as a first responder that there's no way to predict spinal injuries. That's why they are usually assumed present till proven otherwise. Stories of walking-talking people with undetected neck injuries that suddenly drop dead are common amongst emergency personnel. –  DocSalvager Jul 21 at 21:47

Yes, but not as easy as in the movies. You can crack your neck doing yoga too.

http://updates.pain-topics.org/2012/03/report-warns-of-yoga-induced-spinal.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?_r=2&ref=magazine

In the self defense classes I took, the instructor did warn us of a maneuver that would likely break someone's neck and kill them, but it involved wrapping your arm around their neck while they were bent towards you, pulling up very tightly, and dropping to the floor - much harder and much more force than a movie.

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Your answer cites ways you can damage your neck in yoga but nothing to support your claim that you can but not as easy in the movies. You also need to support your claim of what you were taught in martial arts. Anecdotes are not acceptable references. –  Chad Apr 5 '12 at 16:21
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Sorry I've never killed anyone in that manner before with a video to prove it. It's not a stretch for a reasonable person to conclude that a form of self-induced injury can be many time worse and fatal if inflicted in a life-or-death struggle. –  Chloe Apr 6 '12 at 20:02
    
While I agree that it your conclusion makes sense, it is not acceptable for an answer here. Skeptics requires answers be properly backed up by with references. –  Chad Apr 6 '12 at 20:14

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