How an Autopsy or Post-mortem examination performed?

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Last Updated on Feb 06, 2016
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How an Autopsy or Post-mortem examination performed?

The extent of an autopsy varies from the examination of a single organ such as the brain, to a very extensive examination.

Autopsy begins with a detailed external examination. The height, weight, identification marks (scars, tattoos) and other visible details are noted. After this, internal examination begins. A Y or U- shaped incision is made from both shoulders joining over the sternum (breast bone) and continuing down to the pubic bone (i.e region above the genitalia). The skin and underlying tissues are then separated. Rib cage and abdominal cavity are exposed. Neck and chest bones are then exposed by opening the front of the rib cage.

Trachea (windpipe), thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, oesophagus, heart, thoracic aorta and lungs are removed. Once these organs are taken out, removal of the abdominal organs follow. Intestines, liver, gallbladder and bile duct system, pancreas, spleen, adrenal glands, kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder, abdominal aorta, and reproductive organs are dissected out.

Next step is to remove the brain. An incision is made in the back of the skull from one ear to the other. The top flap of the scalp is forced forward and down over the face and the bottom flap is pulled down to the neck. Most of the skull is thus exposed. A vibrating saw is then used to remove the top of the skull. The entire brain is then gently taken out of the cranial vault. The spinal cord may also be taken.

Organs are then examined by a pathologist. Further dissection of the organs is performed as required. Microscopic examination may be required for tissue level studies.

The incisions made in the body are sewn closed after the autopsy. Removed organs are either retained or replaced to the body as demanded by the situation. Embalming and dressing of the body follows. Autopsied body is fit for normal funeral service.

Special studies done as part of the autopsy

A number of studies may be performed as part of autopsy. These include:

  • Cultures to identify infectious agents
Cultures to identify Infectious Agents
  • Chemical analysis to assess drug levels, metabolic abnormalities
  • Genetic studies
  • Tissues may be stored frozen.
  • Organs may be preserved
  • Relevant photographs may be taken

References:

  1. The Essentials of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. Dr. K. S. Narayan Reddy

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Did you know that Legionnaire's disease was discovered as a result of autopsy. In 1976 34 of the 221 delegates died when they attended an American Legion conference in Philadelphia. Food poisoning was ruled out and after this it became apparent that they had inhaled a bacterium Legionella on autopsies.

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