I heard from a friend that holding in your sneeze can actually kill a few of your brain cells. I did a google search, but most of the results had no evidence (e.g. Yahoo Answers). Moreover, I checked out Snopes, but it was more of the same.

Are there any scientific studies or evidence that supports what my friend says?

  • I have heard of damage occurring to the inner ear (resulting in loss of balance). I only mention this because you may be looking for a slightly different phenomenon than you think. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 1:59

Holding in a sneeze is a form of involuntary Valsalva manoeuvre. In a Valsalva, there are characteristic changes in cerebral blood flow, and velocity as reported in this study [1]

The characteristic changes in blood pressure (phases I to IV) were seen in all subjects, accompanying distinct changes in cerebral blood flow velocity. The relative changes in mean velocity during phases II and IV were significantly greater than those in mean blood pressure. Compared with the baseline value, velocity decreased by 35% in phase IIa, then rose by 56.5% in phase IV (corresponding changes in blood pressure were -10.2% and +29.8%, respectively).

So, it is conceivable that in people with some weakening in intracranial blood vessels eg. an aneurysm, a stroke might result with aneurysm rupture.

Alan Wild, a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor of otolaryngology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, is quoted as saying holding in a sneeze in an unlucky person might: [2]

...weaken a blood vessel in the brain and cause it to rupture due to the momentary elevation of blood pressure

but otherwise, if you don't have such anatomical variations, then there is no mechanism to kill a few brain cells.

[1] Tiecks FP, Lam AM, Matta BF, Strebel S, Douville C, Newell DW. Effects of the valsalva maneuver on cerebral circulation in healthy adults. A transcranial Doppler Study. Stroke. 1995 Aug;26(8):1386-92. PubMed PMID: 7631342.

[2] http://www.livescience.com/32776-is-it-safe-to-hold-in-a-sneeze.html

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