Ikeh Akinyemi Ikeh Akinyemi is a software engineer based in Rivers State, Nigeria. He’s passionate about learning pure and applied mathematics concepts, open source, and software engineering.

Understanding and handling Rust mutex poisoning

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Understanding And Handling Rust Mutex Poisoning

When it comes to concurrent programming in Rust, mutexes are one of the most commonly used tools for ensuring thread safety. A mutex, or mutual exclusion primitive, is a synchronization primitive that allows multiple threads to access a shared resource while ensuring that only one thread can access it at a time.

However, a mutex can be a double-edged sword because, while it can prevent data races and ensure thread safety, it can also lead to a problem called mutex poisoning. In this article, we will explain what mutex poisoning is, why it happens, and how to recover from it.

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What is mutex poisoning?

Mutex poisoning is a situation that can occur when a thread panics while holding a lock on a mutex. When a thread panics, it can leave the mutex in an inconsistent state, making it impossible for other threads to acquire the lock. This can cause a deadlock or other types of synchronization issues.

To better understand this problem, let’s look at an example. Suppose we have a mutex that guards access to a shared resource, such as a vector of integers:

use std::sync::{Arc, Mutex};

fn main() {
    let shared_data = Arc::new(Mutex::new(vec![1, 2, 3]));

    // Spawn two threads that will access the shared data
    for i in 0..2 {
        let shared_data = Arc::clone(&shared_data);
        std::thread::spawn(move || {
            let mut data = shared_data.lock().unwrap();

In this example, we first create a mutex called shared_data using the Mutex type from the std::sync module. This Mutex guards access to a vector of integers, which is initially set to contain the values [1, 2, 3].

Next, we use the Arc type to create a shared reference-counted pointer to the Mutex. This allows us to share ownership of the mutex between multiple threads, and ensure that it is dropped only after all threads have finished accessing it.

We then spawn two threads using a for loop that iterates over the range 0..2. For each iteration, we clone the shared reference to the mutex using the Arc::clone method and pass it to the thread using the std::thread::spawn function. Inside the closure passed to spawn, we acquire the mutex lock using the lock() method, which returns a guard that grants exclusive access to the shared data.

To prevent data races, we add the index i of each thread to the vector using the push() method. Because the closure passed to spawn takes ownership of the cloned reference to the mutex, we use the move keyword to transfer ownership to the closure.

The problem with this code is that if one thread panics while holding the lock, it can leave the mutex in an inconsistent state, making it impossible for the other thread to acquire the lock. This is what is known as mutex poisoning, and it can cause other threads waiting on the lock to block indefinitely.

Why does mutex poisoning happen?

Mutex poisoning happens because of how Rust’s mutex implementation works. When a thread panics while holding a lock on a mutex, the mutex is left in a poisoned state. In this state, any subsequent attempts to acquire the lock will cause an error, indicating that the mutex has been poisoned.

The reason for this behavior is to prevent data corruption and other synchronization issues. If a thread panics while holding a lock, it may leave the shared resource in an inconsistent state, which can cause other threads to read or modify the data incorrectly. By marking the mutex as poisoned, Rust’s mutex implementation ensures that any subsequent attempts to acquire the lock will fail, preventing further damage to the shared resource.

How to recover from mutex poisoning

Recovering from mutex poisoning can be tricky, but it is not impossible. The first step is to detect it. This can be done by checking the result of the lock() method on the mutex. If the method returns in an error, it means that the mutex has been poisoned.

Here is an example of how to detect and recover from mutex poisoning:

use std::sync::{Arc, Mutex, MutexGuard};
use std::thread;

fn main() {
    let shared_data = Arc::new(Mutex::new(vec![1, 2, 3]));
    let mut handles = Vec::new();
    // Spawn two threads that will access the shared data
    for i in 0..2 {
        let shared_data = shared_data.clone(); // Clone the Arc to move into the thread
        let handle = thread::spawn(move || {
            let mut data: MutexGuard<Vec<i32>> = match shared_data.lock() {
                Ok(guard) => guard,
                Err(poisoned) => {
                    // Handle mutex poisoning
                    let guard = poisoned.into_inner();
                    println!("Thread {} recovered from mutex poisoning: {:?}", i, *guard);
            // Use the data
            println!("Thread {}: {:?}", i, *data);

    // Wait for the threads to finish
    for handle in handles {

In the code above, we first create a shared data structure using Arc and Mutex. We then spawn two threads to access the shared data.

When a thread tries to acquire a lock on the shared resource using the lock() method, it returns a Result type. If the lock is not poisoned, the Result is Ok and the thread can safely use the data. If the lock has been poisoned, the Result is an Err with a Poisoned variant.

To handle mutex poisoning, we use a match statement to pattern match the result of the lock() method. If the lock is poisoned, we call the into_inner() method on the Poisoned guard, which returns the underlying data.

We can then perform recovery steps, such as logging the error or adding the current thread’s data to the shared resource. Once the recovery is complete, we return the guard so that other threads can access the shared data.

In the example code, we add the current thread’s index to the shared vector and print a message indicating that the thread has recovered from mutex poisoning. However, in a real-world scenario, the recovery steps may involve more complex logic.

It’s important to note that in Rust, once a mutex has been poisoned, all subsequent attempts to acquire the lock will also result in a Poisoned error. Therefore, it’s essential to handle Mutex poisoning to ensure the correct behavior of concurrent code.

How to identify a deadlock

We previously mentioned that mutex poisoning can cause deadlocks. It isn’t always easy to identify a deadlock in a complex system. A common way to know that one has occurred within a program is when two or more threads are blocked and waiting for each other to finish execution and release a resource (such as a lock) that they need to continue further executing tasks within the program. Sometimes, blocked threads can be easy to spot, but other times they can go unnoticed in the program.

Mutex locks won’t automatically solve all the deadlocks within your system; deadlocks can still happen if the locks are not obtained in the proper order, and because of external dependencies like databases. In order to reduce the chances of deadlocks, it’s crucial to carefully plan the locking method for multi-threaded programs, and perform proper testing and debugging.

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Practices like writing robust tests for edge cases within the system can help identify and resolve deadlocks in multi-thread programs. This involves writing comprehensive unit tests to cover all possible scenarios. Also, conducting and combining integration tests with stress testing to simulate real-world scenarios of high load on systems where multiple threads are accessing shared resources can help identify a deadlock early before production.

Another approach is to monitor the flow of your system internally or externally using debugging tools, as well as doing a static analysis of your source code to identify potential issues. The idea is to trace the manner in which the locks are acquired and build a dependency tree out of it. An example of this is Tracing Mutex. Additionally, most IDEs are shipped with a debugger tool, which can be used to trace the program execution externally.


Mutex poisoning can be a tricky problem to handle in Rust, but with the right approach, it is possible to recover from it. By understanding why mutex poisoning happens and how to detect and recover from it, you can write safer and more robust concurrent programs in Rust. Remember to always use mutexes when accessing shared resources and handle the possibility of mutex poisoning to ensure that your code is resilient and reliable.

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Ikeh Akinyemi Ikeh Akinyemi is a software engineer based in Rivers State, Nigeria. He’s passionate about learning pure and applied mathematics concepts, open source, and software engineering.

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