Gunshot To The Head: Does This Mean Instant Death?

There is a very little chance of surviving a gunshot to the head, but no patient can come out of the agony unharmed, which is why gun violence is one popular media depiction that no one wants to see translated into reality.

Popular culture and the media loves to highlight and romanticize anyone that receives a gunshot to the head and still manages to survive. They might misplace a few memories, but they are, astonishingly, somehow alive. We have almost certainly scoffed at this idea in the past. Surely, no one can survive taking a bullet to the head, right? Well, almost. Statistically, you would be correct 95% of the time. However, there is still that lucky 5% who endure, despite staring death in the face (literally).

Location of the Injury is Important

The most important factor that determines the survivability of a headshot is the location of the injury. The brain is a marvelous mystery, with each little cluster governing specific vital and not so vital functions of the body. Responsible for controlling involuntary actions, the brain stem is a critical part of our body. A shot directed towards it causes immediate death. Injury to the amygdala or the hypothalamus leads to problems in retaining and retrieving memory. And yes, this is what is most commonly exploited in the daily soaps that your grandma loves so much.

If the injury is to the frontal lobe (seen frequently, as this is situated behind the forehead), then the survivability increases. There is also a greater chance of surviving a front-to-back gunshot than one that has been shot from the side of the head. This is because, in this case, it is possible that the bullet only damaged one hemisphere of the brain and left the other intact.

Major functions like cognition and speech are shared between the two hemispheres, so if one hemisphere is left intact by the bullet, the individual still has a chance of bouncing back from the ordeal, although never with complete psychological and physical health.

vector illustration of the brain's limbic system

vector illustration of the brain’s limbic system

Since the brain stem is nestled safely at the back of the head, most of the time, it is not brain death that is the outright concern for the victim, but rather blood loss. Also, the amount of the blood that is potentially lost is directly influenced by the size and speed of the bullet fired. If a bullet hits any other part of the body, the impact is released to the adjoining body parts, stabilizing the damage and saving the individual. However, the skull is unique due to its enclosed structure.

If a very large high-speed bullet is fired into the skull, the skull bears the full brunt, leading to skull fractures. Skull shards that pierce into the brain at that point are even more difficult to remove than the bullet itself. If the skull is subjected to a high-speed, but small bullet, the worry is that the tiny bullet would ricochet around after entering the brain cavity, damaging several areas of the brain at once. The best-case scenario for survival is therefore a tiny low-velocity bullet fired from a long distance…with a low-caliber gun. Add a helmet for best results…

Can a victim of a gunshot to the head be saved?

As mentioned earlier, blood loss is the real villain in this situation. However, this gives the victim a window of about two minutes to remain conscious. If the victim receives medical attention immediately during this time, there is a better chance of avoiding an untimely end. The doctors then remove the dead tissue and clear the area to relieve the imminent swelling. Otherwise, the swelling would have no outlet and come out at the base, which often leads to fatal consequences. Sometimes, doctors place drains to remove excess fluids and prevent this dangerous brain-swelling.

Yes, there is a slim chance of surviving a gunshot to the head, but no patient can come out of the agony unscathed, which is why gun violence is one popular media depiction that no one wants to see translated into reality.

Suggested Reading


  1. University of Maryland School of Medicine
  2. Neurology – Journal
  3. UCLA Neurosurgery
  4. American Association of Neurological Surgeons
  5. Wikipedia
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About the Author:

Vaishnavi has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Anthropology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai (India) and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Global Studies (whatever that is) from Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany). She loves to read and to sing, especially to avoid awkward situations. She claims she has learned a lot through traveling but she still ends up pulling a door marked ‘Push’, so the jury is still out on that one.

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