- For other uses, see Autopsy (disambiguation).
- Post-mortem, Postmortem and Post mortem redirect here. For other uses, see Post-mortem (disambiguation).
An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination or an obduction, is a medical procedure that consists of a thorough examination of a corpse to determine the cause and manner of a person's death and to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present. A necropsy is a post-mortem examination performed on an animal and it is vulgar usage to apply this term to human beings.
- 1 General information
- 2 Forensic autopsy
- 3 The process
- 3.1 External examination
- 3.2 Internal examination
- 4 Reconstitution of the body
- 5 Other information
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
The term "autopsy" derives from the Greek for "to see for oneself". "Necropsy" is from the Greek for "seeing a dead body".
There are two types of autopsies:
- Forensic: This is done for medical-legal purposes and is the one that is normally seen on television or in the news.
- Clinical: This is usually performed in hospitals to determine a cause of death for research and study purposes.
While dissection of human remains for medical reasons has been practised irregularly for millennia, the modern autopsy process derives from the anatomists of the Renaissance. The two great nineteenth-century medical researchers Rudolf Virchow and Carl von Rokitansky built on the Renaissance legacy to derive the two distinct autopsy techniques that still bear their names. Their demonstation of correspondences between pathological conditions in dead bodies and symptoms and illnesses in the living opened the way for a different way of thinking about disease and its treatment.
From the a perspective of the law, deaths are placed in one of five categories of causes:
Following an in-depth examination of all the evidence, a medical examiner or coroner will assign a cause of death as one of the five listed above.
The body is received at a medical examiner's office or hospital in a body bag or evidence sheet. A brand new body bag is used for each body, to ensure that only evidence from that body is contained within the bag. Evidence sheets are an alternate way to transport the body. An evidence sheet is a sterile sheet that the body is covered in when it is moved. Separate paper sacks are put around the hands and taped closed around the wrists if there is any suspicion of gunpowder residue there.
There are two levels of the physical examination of the body, external and internal. Toxicology, biochemical tests and/or genetic testing often supplement these and frequently assist the pathologist in assigning cause(s) of death.
A preliminary autopsy photograph of a middle aged woman
The person responsible for handling, moving, cleaning the body is often called a diener (the German word for servant). After the body is received, it is first photographed. Then the examiner notes the clothes and the position of the clothes on the body before they are removed. Then evidence like gun powder residue, paint flakes etc are collected from the external surfaces of the body. Samples of hair, finger nails etc are taken at this stage. Sometimes special ultraviolet radiation is used to search the body for evidence that may not be easily visible to the naked eye. The body may also be X-rayed at this stage.
Once the evidence is collected, the body is removed from the bag, undressed and the wounds if any are examined. This is followed by cleaning the body for the actual examination. After the body is cleaned, it is weighed and measured. Often, the scale is large enough to accommodate the cart that the body is transported on. The person's weight is then determined by subtracting the weight of the cart from the total weight seen on the scale. The body is then transported to the autopsy room and placed on the autopsy table. A plastic or rubber brick called the body block is placed under the back of the corpse causing the chest to protrude forward and making it easier to cut open. Then a general description of the body with regards to race, sex, hair color and length, eye color, age, and identifying features is recorded. A handheld voice recorder or a standard exam form is normally used to record this information.
The three images to accompany this section are graphic and potentially upsetting. For this reason they are not shown here but can be viewed via this link.
After the body has been prepared for autopsy, a block is placed under the chest. This causes the chest to protrude outward and the arms and neck to fall back. This allows the prosector, a pathologist or pathologists' assistant, the maximum exposure to the trunk. After this is done, the internal examination begins. The internal examination consists of inspecting the internal organs of the body for evidence of trauma or other indications of the cause of death. For the internal examination, a large and deep Y-shaped incision is made from shoulder to shoulder meeting at the breastbone extending all the way down to the pubic bone and will make a slight deviation to the side to avoid the navel. If the body is that of a woman, the incisions are made to go around the breasts so that the arms of the "Y" have a slightly curved appearance. Bleeding from the cuts (if there even is any) is minimal, because gravity is producing the only blood pressure.
An electric saw dubbed a "Stryker saw" is most often used to open the chest cavity. The prosector uses the tool to saw through the ribs on the lateral sides of the chest cavity to allow the sternum and attached ribs to be lifted as one chest plate; this is done so that the heart and lungs can be seen in situ and that the heart, in particular the pericardial sac is not damaged or disturbed from opening. A scalpel is utilized to remove any soft tissue that is still attached to the posterior side of the chest plate. Now the lungs and the heart are exposed. The chest plate is set aside and will be eventually replaced at the end of the autopsy.
At this stage all the organs are exposed. Then a series of cuts, along the vertebral column, are made so that the organs can be detached and pulled out in one piece for further inspection and sampling. The various organs are examined, weighed and tissue samples in the form of slices are taken. Even major blood vessels are cut open and inspected at this stage. Next the stomach and its contents are examined and weighed. This could be useful to find the cause and time of death.
The body block that was utilized earlier to elevate the chest cavity is now used to elevate the head. To examine the brain, a cut is made from behind one ear, across the forehead, to the other ear and around. These incisions are made on the back of the head so that when the autopsy is completed, the incision can be neatly sewn up and is not noticed when the head is resting on a pillow in funeral where it is open casket. The scalp is pulled away from the skull in two flaps with the front flap going over the face and the rear flap over the back of the neck. The skull is then cut with an electric saw to create a "cap" that can be pulled off, exposing the brain. The dura - the soft tissue membrane that covers the brain remains attached to the "cap". The brain's connection to the spinal cord is severed, and the brain can then be easily lifted out of the skull for examination. If the brain needs to be preserved before being inspected, it is contained in a jar of formalin (Ten percent solution of formaldehyde gas in buffered water) for at least two weeks. This not only preserves the brain, but also makes it firmer allowing easier handling without corrupting the tissue.
Reconstitution of the body
An important aim of the autopsy is to reconstitute the body such that it can be viewed, if desired, by relatives of the deceased following the procedure. After the examination, the body has an open and empty chest cavity with chest flaps open on both sides, the top of the skull is missing, and the skull flaps are pulled over the face and neck. It is unusual to examine the face, arms, hands or legs internally. The organs are replaced or incinerated, the chest flaps are closed and sewn back together and the skull cap is sewed back in place. Then the body may be wrapped in a shroud and it is common for relatives of the deceased to not be able to tell the procedure has been done when the deceased is viewed in a funeral parlor after embalming.
The principal aim of an autopsy is to discover the cause of death, to determine the state of health of the person before they died, and whether any medical diagnosis and treatment before death was appropriate. Studies have shown that even in the modern era of use of high technology scanning and medical tests, the medical cause of death is wrong in about one third of instances unless an autopsy is performed. In about one in ten cases the cause of death is so wrong that had it been known in life the medical management of the patient would have been significantly different.
In the United States and most Western countries the number of autopsies performed in hospitals has been decreasing every year since 1955. Critics, including pathologist and former JAMA editor George Lundberg, have charged that the reduction in autopsies is negatively affecting the care delivered in hospitals, because when mistakes result in death, they are often not investigated and lessons learned.
When a person has given permission in advance of their death, autopsies may also be carried out for the purposes of teaching or medical research.
An autopsy is frequently performed in cases of sudden death, where a doctor is not able to write a death certificate, or when death is believed to be due to an unnatural cause. These examinations are performed under a legal authority (Medical Examiner or Coroner) and do not require the consent of relatives of the deceased. The most extreme example is the examination of murder victims, especially when medical examiners are looking for signs of death or the murder method, such as bullet wounds and exit points, signs of strangulation, or traces of poison.
- forensic science
- human body disposal
- John Tonge Centre
- Autopsy - a detailed description by a pathologist complete with cartoon figures.
- The Virtual Autopsy - a site from the University of Leicester were one examines the patient, looks at the (medical) history and gets a try at the diagnosis.
- HBO's Autopsy - a series on HBO about forensics and autopsies.
- BBC News - Controversial Autopsy goes ahead - news story about Prof. Gunther von Hagens performing the first public autopsy in the UK in 170 years.
- Video clip of a public autopsy performed by Gunther von Hagens
- www.autopsyvideo.com- This site offers autopsy documentaries, one produced with the aid of The LA County Coroner's Office.de:Leichenschau
Search Term: "Autopsy"
Categories: Death | Pathology