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09.01.2019 | Review

Relevant findings on postmortem CT and postmortem MRI in hanging, ligature strangulation and manual strangulation and their additional value compared to autopsy – a systematic review

Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology
Dominic Gascho, Jakob Heimer, Carlo Tappero, Sarah Schaerli
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Several articles have described the use of postmortem computed tomography (CT) and postmortem magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in forensic medicine. Although access to CT scanners and, particularly, access to MRI scanners, is still limited for several institutes, both modalities are being applied with increasing frequency in the forensic setting. Certainly, postmortem imaging can provide crucial information prior to autopsy, and this method has even been considered a replacement to autopsy in selected cases by some forensic institutes. However, the role of postmortem imaging has to be assessed individually according to various injury categories and causes of death. Therefore, this systematic review focuses on the role of postmortem CT and MRI in cases of hanging and ligature and manual strangulation. We assessed the most common and relevant findings on CT and MRI in cases of strangulation and compared the detectability of these findings among CT, MRI and autopsy. According to the available literature, mainly fractures of the hyoid bone or thyroid cartilage were investigated using postmortem CT. Compared to autopsy, CT demonstrated equivalent results concerning the detection of these fractures. A currently described “gas bubble sign” may even facilitate the detection of laryngeal fractures on CT. Regarding the detection of hemorrhages in the soft tissue of the neck, postmortem MRI is more suitable for the detection of this “vital sign” in strangulation. Compared to autopsy, postmortem MRI is almost equally accurate for the detection of hemorrhages in the neck. Another “vital sign”, gas within the soft tissue in hanging, which is hardly detectable by conventional autopsy, can be clearly depicted by CT and MRI. The number of cases of manual and ligature strangulation that were investigated by means of postmortem CT and MRI is much smaller than the number of cases of hanging that were investigated by CT and MRI. Likewise, judicial hanging and the hangman’s fracture on postmortem imaging were described in only a few cases. Based on the results of this systematic review, we discuss the additional value of CT and MRI in fatal strangulation compared to autopsy, and we reflect on where the literature is currently lacking.

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