Dissection and examination of a dead body to determine cause of death and learn about disease processes in ways that are not possible with the living. Autopsies have contributed to the development of medicine since at least the Middle Ages. Beyond revealing causes of individual deaths, autopsy is crucial to the accuracy of disease and death statistics, the education of medical students, the understanding of new and changing diseases, and the advancement of medical science.
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An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, necropsy, or obduction, is a medical procedure that consists of a thorough examination of a corpse to determine the cause and manner of death and to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present. It is usually performed by a specialized medical doctor called a pathologist.
Autopsies are either performed for legal or medical purposes. A forensic autopsy is carried out when the cause of death may be a criminal matter, while a clinical or academic autopsy is performed to find the medical cause of death and is used in cases of unknown or uncertain death, or for research purposes. Autopsies can be further classified into cases where external examination suffices, and those where the body is dissected and an internal examination is conducted. Permission from next of kin may be required for internal autopsy in some cases. Once an internal autopsy is complete the body is reconstituted by sewing it back together.
The prefix 'auto-' means 'self', and so autopsy means 'to see for oneself'; it is used more broadly of personal examination of an object, as well as its specific usage for the post-mortem examination of a human corpse.
A study that focused on myocardial infarction (heart attack) as a cause of death found significant errors of omission and commission, i.e. a sizable number cases ascribed to myocardial infarctions (MIs) were not MIs and a significant number of non-MIs were actually MIs.
A systematic review of studies of the autopsy calculated that in about 25% of autopsies a major diagnostic error will be revealed. However, this rate has decreased over time and the study projects that in a contemporary US institution, 8.4% to 24.4% of autopsies will detect major diagnostic errors.
A large meta-analysis suggested that approximately one third of death certificates are incorrect and that half of the autopsies performed produced findings that were not suspected before the person died. Also, it is thought that over one fifth of unexpected findings can only be diagnosed histologically, i.e. by biopsy or autopsy, and that approximately one quarter of unexpected findings, or 5% of all findings, are major and can similarly only be diagnosed from tissue.
Focusing intubated patients, one study found "abdominal pathologic conditions--abscesses, bowel perforations, or infarction--were as frequent as pulmonary emboli as a cause of class I errors. While patients with abdominal pathologic conditions generally complained of abdominal pain, results of examination of the abdomen were considered unremarkable in most patients, and the symptom was not pursued".
The term "autopsy" derives from the Greek for "to see oneself". "Necropsy" is from the Greek for "seeing a dead body".
There are three main types of autopsies:
While dissection of human remains for medical reasons has been practiced irregularly for nearly a millennium since Avenzoar and Ibn al-Nafis, 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 demonstration 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. In China, the office of coroner and forensic autopsy have a history nearly two thousand years old.
In some jurisdictions, the Undetermined category may include deaths in absentia, such as deaths at sea and missing persons declared dead in a court of law; in others, such deaths are classified under "Other".
Following an in-depth examination of all the evidence, a medical examiner or coroner will assign a manner of death as one of the five listed above; and detail the evidence on the mechanism of the death.
Within the United Kingdom, clinical autopsies can only be carried out with the consent of the family of the deceased person as opposed to a medico-legal autopsy instructed by a Coroner (England & Wales) or Procurator Fiscal (Scotland) to which the family cannot object.
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. If it is believed there may be any significant residue on the hands, for instance gunpowder, a separate paper sack is put around each hand and taped shut around the wrist.
There are two parts to the physical examination of the body: the external and internal examination. Toxicology, biochemical tests and/or genetic testing often supplement these and frequently assist the pathologist in assigning the cause or causes of death.
Once the external evidence is collected, the body is removed from the bag, undressed and any wounds present are examined. The body is then cleaned, weighed and measured in preparation for the internal examination. The scale used to weigh the body is often designed to accommodate the cart that the body is transported on; its weight is then deducted from the total weight shown to give the weight of the body.
If not already within an autopsy room, the body is transported to one and placed on a table. A general description of the body as regards ethnicity, sex, age, hair color and length, eye color and other distinguishing features (birthmarks, old scar tissue, moles, etc) is then made. A handheld voice recorder or a standard examination form is normally used to record this information. In some countries e.g. France, Germany and Canada to name but a few, an autopsy may comprise an external examination only. This concept is sometimes termed a "view and grant". The principles behind this being that the medical records, history of the deceased and circumstances of death have all indicated as to the cause and manner of death without the need for an internal examination.
In all of the above cases the cut then extends all the way down to the pubic bone (making a deviation to the left side of the navel).
Bleeding from the cuts is minimal, or non-existent, due to the fact that the pull of gravity is producing the only blood pressure at this point, related directly to the complete lack of cardiac functionality. However, in certain cases there is anecdotal evidence to prove that bleeding can be quite profuse, especially in cases of drowning.
An electric saw dubbed a "Stryker saw" after a common manufacturer of the tool, is most often used to open the chest cavity. However, in some cases, due to the large amount of dust created when the bone is cut by the saw, shears are used to open the chest cavity. It is also possible to utilise a simple scalpel blade. 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 used 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 the organs are exposed. Usually, the organs are removed in a systematic fashion. Making a decision as to what order the organs are to be removed will depend highly on the case in question. Organs can be removed in several ways: The first is the en masse technique of letulle whereby all the organs are removed as one large mass. The second is the en bloc method of Ghon. The most popular in the UK is a modified version of this method which is divided into four groups of organs. Although these are the two predominant evisceration techniques in the UK variations on these are widespread.
One method is described here: The pericardial sac is opened to view the heart. Blood for chemical analysis may be removed from the inferior vena cava or the pulmonary veins. Before removing the heart, the pulmonary artery is opened in order to search for a blood clot. The heart can then be removed by cutting the inferior vena cava, the pulmonary veins, the aorta and pulmonary artery, and the superior vena cava. This method leaves the aortic arch intact, which will make things easier for the embalmer. The left lung is then easily accessible and can be removed by cutting the bronchus, artery, and vein at the hilum. The right lung can then be similarly removed. The abdominal organs can be removed one by one after first examining their relationships and vessels.
Some pathologists, however, prefer to remove the organs all in one "block". 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. During autopsies of infants, this method is used almost all of the time. 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 intestinal contents are examined and weighed. This could be useful to find the cause and time of death, due to the natural passage of food through the bowel during digestion. The more area empty, the longer the deceased had gone without a meal before death.
The body block that was used earlier to elevate the chest cavity is now used to elevate the head. To examine the brain, an incision is made from behind one ear, over the crown of the head, to a point behind the other ear. 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 an open casket funeral. 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 brain is then observed in situ. Then the brain's connection to the cranial nerves and spinal cord are severed, and the brain is then lifted out of the skull for further examination. If the brain needs to be preserved before being inspected, it is contained in a large container of formalin (15 percent solution of formaldehyde gas in buffered water) for at least two but preferably four weeks. This not only preserves the brain, but also makes it firmer allowing easier handling without corrupting the tissue.
In 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 or Procurator Fiscal) 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.
P.M. examination is far more common in veterinary medicine than in human medicine. For a lot of species exhibiting few clinical symptoms (sheep), or that not suit to detailed clinical examination (poultry, cage birds, zoo animals), it is the main way for veterinarians to come to a diagnosis.
Dead animals can be grossly postmortem on field condition, or can be directed to private or state laboratories, or to Faculty of Veterinary Medicine for a detailed autopsy. Necropsy is an autopsy performed on animals.