Rigor mortis

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This article is about the sign of death. For other uses, see Rigor mortis (disambiguation).
Stages of death

Pallor mortis
Algor mortis
Rigor mortis
Livor mortis

Rigor mortis (Latin: rigor "stiffness", mortis "of death") is one of the recognizable signs of death, caused by chemical changes in the muscles after death, causing the limbs of the corpse to become stiff and difficult to move or manipulate.[1] In humans, it commences after about three to four hours, reaches maximum stiffness after 12 hours, and gradually dissipates from approximately 24 hours after death.[2]


After death, ventilation in organisms ceases to occur, depleting the corpse of oxygen used in the making of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). As there is an unavailability of ATP, the myosin heads continue binding with the active sites of actin proteins and the muscle is unable to relax until further enzyme activity.

Unlike in normal muscular contraction, after death, the body is unable to complete the cycle and release the coupling between the myosin and actin, creating a state of muscular contraction until the breakdown of muscle tissue by enzymes (endogenous or bacterial) during decomposition. As part of the process of decomposition, the myosin heads are degraded by the enzymes, allowing the muscle contraction to release and the body to relax.[1][3]

Physical changes[edit]

At the time of death, a condition called "primary flaccidity" occurs. Following this, the muscles stiffen in rigor mortis. All muscles in the body are affected. Starting between two to six hours following death, rigor mortis begins with the eyelids, neck, and jaw. The sequence may be due to different lactic acid levels among different muscles, which is directly related to the difference in glycogen levels and different types of muscle fibers. Rigor mortis then spreads to the other muscles within the next four to six hours, including the internal organs. The onset of rigor mortis is affected by the individual's age, sex, physical condition, and muscular build. Rigor mortis may not be perceivable in many infant and child corpses due to their smaller muscle mass.[4]

Applications in meat industry[edit]

Rigor mortis is very important in meat technology. The onset of rigor mortis and its resolution partially determines the tenderness of meat. If the postslaughter meat is immediately chilled to 15°C (59°F), a phenomenon known as cold shortening occurs, where the muscle sarcomeres shrink to a third of their original length.

Cold shortening is caused by the release of stored calcium ions from the sarcoplasmic reticulum of muscle fibers in response to the cold stimulus. The calcium ions trigger powerful muscle contraction aided by ATP molecules. To prevent cold shortening, a process known as electrical stimulation is carried out, especially in beef carcasses, immediately after slaughter and skinning. In this process, the carcass is stimulated with alternating current, causing it to contract and relax, which depletes the ATP reserve from the carcass and prevents cold shortening.[5]

Application in forensic pathology[edit]

The degree of rigor mortis may be used in forensic pathology to determine the approximate time of death. A dead body holds its position as rigor mortis sets in. If the body is moved after death, but before rigor mortis begins, forensic techniques such as Livor mortis can be applied. If the position in which a body is found does not match the location where it is found (for example, if it is flat on its back with one arm sticking straight up), that could mean someone moved it. Several factors also affect the progression of rigor mortis, and investigators take these into account when estimating the time of death. One such factor is the ambient temperature. When conditions are warm, the onset and pace of rigor mortis are sped up by providing a conducive environment for the metabolic processes that cause decay. Low temperatures, however, slow them down. Therefore, for a person who dies outside in frozen conditions rigor mortis may last several days more than normal, so investigators may have to abandon it as a tool for determining time of death.[6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b About.com
  2. ^ Saladin, K.S. 2010. Anatomy & Physiology: 6th edition. McGraw-Hill.
  3. ^ http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/zoo00/zoo00248.htm
  4. ^ "Rigor Mortis and Other Postmortem Changes - Burial, Body, Life, Cause, Time, Person, Human, Putrefaction." Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2011. Web. 4 December 2011. <http://www.deathreference.com/Py-Se/Rigor-Mortis-and-Other-Postmortem-Changes.html>.
  5. ^ "Carcass electrical stimulation to prevent cold shortening toughness in beef", DAVEY, GILBERT, CARSE, Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand, 1975 via Google Books
  6. ^ Peress, Robin. "Discovery Health "Rigor Mortis at the Crime Scene"" Discovery Health "Health Guides" Discovery Fit & Health, 2011. Web. 4 December 2011. <http://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/death-dying/rigor-mortis-cause2.htm>
  7. ^ Estimating The Time of Death, ExploreForensics <http://www.exploreforensics.co.uk/estimating-the-time-of-death.html