Basic Safety [Level 1]
- Common Causes of Injury
- Risk of Death
- Always Have a Way Out
- What Happens If ...?
This page covers the basic technical aspects of performing rope bondage as safely as possible. It is also critically important to have a good understanding of Negotiation and Consent for rope bondage. More general resources and advice on navigating the rope community are available in Getting Started with Rope.
In many cases, getting into a motor vehicle to go to your partner's house may be the most dangerous part of your rope scene. However, practiced without proper attention to safety, bondage can be deadly; further, some techniques which a reasonable person might choose to use nevertheless carry an irreducible risk of serious injury. The most important thing is for you and your partner to always both be aware of the risks involved in whatever you are doing. Without awareness of the risks, it is impossible to make reasoned decisions or give meaningful consent.
As a top, I always prefer to use the safest available technique which will achieve the effect that I'm after; the safer a situation is, the more I can focus on my connection to my partner, and the greater the freedom I feel to push them right up to the edge of their limits. In a scene with unpredictable dangers, I have to dial back my level of play to leave an extra margin for that uncertainty, and have to focus more of my attention on what's happening to my partner's body instead of what's happening in their mind. Thus, perhaps ironically, all other things being equal, frequently safer scenes are more intense than less safe ones. My point in saying this is that playing safe shouldn't be viewed as for the faint of heart; if you talk to people in daredevil professions, like stunt performers, they are as a rule obsessed with safety -- that focus on safety is not in opposition to pushing the envelope, but rather what makes it possible.
Common Causes of Injury
Face, Meet Floor
It sounds silly, but many of the most serious bondage injuries involve the bottom somehow falling on their face. We are well-equipped to protect our faces when falling from standing height in everyday circumstances; however, as soon as someone's hands are tied, standing, walking, even sitting are potentially dangerous activities -- a risk we naturally tend to underestimate, because it seems so mundane.
Moreover, certain bondage bottoms seem to have an endless well of creative techniques for bringing their faces into rapid contact with the floor; some that I've seen include:
- Running around a crowded event space with their hands tied behind their back
- Tipping over a piece of furniture they are tied to
- Falling out of a bed they are tied up on, or even tied to
- Standing or even hopping on one foot, for the sheer joy of it
Generally speaking, the top in a bondage scene is in the best position to identify and head off the potential for face-floor events; I recommend adopting a mindset of assuming that your bottom is going to make every conceivable effort to get their face to hit the floor, and tie as if your #1 job is to prevent them doing so.
At rope events where people tie while socializing, this phenomenon is generally well understood, and it is a widely accepted practice among friends to ask that someone keep an eye on your tied-up partner for a moment while you go to fetch them a cup of water (or etc.); the two major responsibilities being entrusted in that scenario are to get them out in case of emergency, and to keep their face off the floor.
Without a doubt, the most common type of injury in rope bondage is nerve compression; this occurs when rope places excessive pressure directly on a nerve, most often by crushing it against a bone. Because nerves control all our sensations and movement, this type of injury can be anywhere from mildly annoying to seriously debilitating; and because nerves heal very slowly, the acute symptoms of nerve injury can last for months. In the most serious cases, complete recovery can take years, and while permanent disability is extremely rare, it's common for the point of injury to remain sensitive to re-injury for a very long time.
In short, unless you relish the idea of your partner's not being able to feed or dress themselves for weeks or months, I suggest paying close attention to this section.
Run your fingers down the sides of your opposite forearm. Just before the wrist, the bones of the forearm form a lump; on the other side of that lump is a groove, between where the bones of arm end and the bones of the hand begin. On both the thumb side and pinkie side of that groove, there are vulnerable sensory nerves. This is a common site for injury, because the groove is just the right width for a single piece of rope to become lodged in. Whenever tying the wrists, you want to ensure that the rope starts out above that groove on the forearm, and is loose enough that if it slides towards the hand, it will slide right past the groove and rest on the back of the hand.
This type of nerve injury on the thumb side is often referred to as Handcuff Neuropathy, after its most common cause.
Knees and Elbows
Nerves in the extremities are most exposed to injury near the joints; for this reason you want to keep rope/pressure off the area right around the knees and elbows. Particular nerves of concern are the ulnar nerve, just above the elbow on the back of the arm (what you hit when you hit your funny bone), and the common peroneal nerve just below the knee on the outside of the leg. One of the most serious nerve injuries I've heard of was someone's being left unable to walk normally for an extended period after hanging by rope behind their knees.
The single most common debilitating injury in the rope bondage community is radial nerve compression in the upper arm; this results in wrist drop, an inability to extend the hand at the wrist and to spread the fingers and thumb. Based on survey data, the radial nerve is potentially vulnerable along the back of the upper arm starting just below the deltoid muscle, all the way down to where the ulnar nerve becomes vulnerable above the elbow. While many people have some areas that can be tied safely on the upper arm, it is impossible to predict exactly where they will be, due to differences in individual anatomy.
Hips and Upper Thigh
Two sensory branches of the femoral nerve show patterns of being susceptible to bondage injury -- the lateral femoral cutaneous, which can be pinched against the top of the front of the hips, and the anterior femoral cutaneous, which runs along the front of the thigh and appears most vulnerable right near the crease between thigh and abdomen. While these are usually injured only in suspension, I've also seen an extreme forward bend cause numbness in the upper thigh due to positional compression of a branch of the femoral nerve.
The most common symptoms of nerve compression while it's happening are tingling and numbness, much like when your foot goes to sleep from sitting on it (which is in fact a mild form of nerve compression). However, nerve compression can present as any sensation nerves create (i.e., all of them) -- for instance: sharp pain, itching, burning, and cold have all been reported at the time a nerve injury was occurring. Most dangerously, sometimes nerve injury is not accompanied by any sensation at all; there are many reports of people who felt completely normal while tied, only to discover a nerve injury after the fact. This is what makes check-ins so crucial.
Two signs that nerve compression symptoms are particularly likely to be serious are if they come on very quickly, or are highly localized (e.g. only one side of a hand tingling). However, nerve injury can also occur when the symptoms of compression seem very mild. The best bet is to treat all tingling/numbness as a potential safety issue. For more nuance around how nerve compression presents and leads to injury, see Advanced Nerve Safety.
Whenever using a tie with the potential for nerve compression, it's essential to periodically check for normal nerve function, since a bottom's body may not provide any warning signals of impending injury.
For Sensory Nerves
Superficial sensory nerve injuries are particularly sneaky, because they present most commonly as numbness, a lack of feeling. I like to periodically run my hands over any parts of my partner's body I'm concerned could be subject to this type of injury; that gives them a chance to notice any missing/unusual sensation in that area, but is also sexy and doesn't interrupt the scene. Keep in mind that the numb area may be some ways out along a limb from the site of compression.
For Motor Nerves
The most important thing to keep in mind when checking motor function is to check all directions of movement. Frequently the muscles that move in opposing directions are supplied by different nerves, so if you check only one direction, you haven't checked all the nerves.
If you agree upon a check procedure with your bottom ahead of time, you can perform a check without having to stop the scene and talk about it. I do hand checks as follows: I place my index finger into the palm of their hand, in response to which they squeeze their fingers tight about mine. Then I wrap the rest of my fingers around their fist, in response to which they force their hand open against my gentle pressure. This series of responses both communicates to me "I'm okay", and allows me to judge that they have normal motor function. Practicing this sequence before our scene allows me to get a sense of their normal level of finger strength.
A clever self hand check some bottoms like to use is to put the tip of their first two fingers onto the back of their thumb, and press upward with their thumb. This provides a quick sensory and motor check of the radial nerve which they can do themselves, more frequently than would be practical to do a partner hand check.
There is some reason to believe that taking an NSAID immediately after a nerve injury occurs might aid recovery -- in any case it is unlikely to hurt (unless otherwise contraindicated for an individual). I keep ibuprofen in my rope bag for this reason, just in case.
Aside from that, mostly you just want to leave things alone to heal -- avoid anything that might mechanically disturb the site of injury. Shay has an excellent in-depth article on first aid for nerve damage.
Loss of Circulation
Reduced circulation from rope bondage is not generally dangerous to large parts of the body like an arm or leg. However, there is a long-standing misunderstanding in the bondage community that mild tingling and numbness are "just lost circulation", when in fact those are much more likely symptoms of nerve compression. See Advanced Nerve Safety for a more in-depth discussion of this.
The symptoms that DO relate to lost circulation are skin turning purple or white and getting cold. When tying smaller parts of the body, like digits and genitals, it's a good idea not to substantially impair circulation for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. If the extremity is cold, discolored, and puffy/swollen, you should probably ease up a bit. Significantly impairing circulation can cause a type of speckled bruising called petechia, and in extreme/extended cases can cause nerve/tissue damage.
Generally speaking, there's no reason to tie so tightly that you are cutting off circulation. With most ties, you should be able to easily slip a finger under the rope when it is properly tensioned.
Risk of Death
Tying the Neck
Pressure on the front and sides of the neck can rapidly impair blood flow to the brain; if allowed to continue past the point of unconsciousness, this will quickly result in brain injury and death. It's also possible to damage the trachea and larynx by applying too much pressure to the front of the throat.
Acknowledging that breath play is a popular fetish, my recommendation is that you become an expert on breath play and an expert on rope before considering combining them, which multiplies the risks of both. When you choke someone with rope, it is both harder to judge the amount of force you are applying and to modulate that force; it's also possible to apply a greater amount of force to a much smaller area of the neck than you could with your hands/arms. These all increase the risk of injury or death.
Being Tied Up Alone
Never, never, never leave someone who is tied up alone, or tie yourself up when you are alone. That is how almost all bondage-related deaths occur. There are all sorts of life-threatening things that can go wrong when someone is unable to assist themselves, from positional asphyxia to choking on a gag or their own vomit.
If you want to act out a fantasy that involves someone being left alone in bondage, take advantage of a blindfold, or use a hidden camera to monitor them.
Always Have a Way Out
Knots jam. Buildings catch on fire. Someday California will fall into the ocean. You may need to get out of the rope faster than you can untie. When that day comes, you'd best have something to cut your rope with that won't also cut your bottom in the process. I recommend safety/EMT shears; they are cheap and widely available. I keep a pair in every bag I use and every room of my house, just like pens; but I'm a bit of a rope nut. The ones I like best have an extra-long hole on the hand side that actually fits several fingers, like in this photo. Regardless, price doesn't guarantee quality; always test that the cutter you have works on the rope that you use.
Rescue hooks are also a popular option -- if a rescue hook is what you go with, make sure to practice using it and keep it sharp. Avoid similar-looking implements made for skinning animals, which have an opening large enough to easily catch small body parts on the blade.
What Happens If ...?
This is a question you should be asking yourself constantly when putting together a bondage scene. What if they lose their balance or pass out? What if they kick when they orgasm? What if the power goes out? I'll talk more about specific hazards in relation to particular techniques that bring them up, but a lot of it comes down to just taking a moment to think about what might go wrong, and planning accordingly.