FracturesBones in living people have a certain degree of elasticity in response to forces applied to them, which essentially means that they can bend slightly before returning to their normal shape. When forces applied to bone are greater than the elastic potential, it can result in ‘plastic deformation’ to the bone, which is a permanent alteration. This is sometimes seen on the skulls of people who have a slight depression that has occurred in response to trauma. If the force applied is greater than this, the structure of the bone can fail and a fracture occur.After a bone has fractured, bleeding occurs at the fracture edges. After approximately one-week, woven bone may just be visible at the site of the fracture. This develops into a fracture callus which gradually hardens as the bone heals. The callus will remodel over time, but the site of the fracture is usually still visible many years afterwards and there is often a slight deformity caused by angulation or overlap of the fractured ends as they heal.Ante-mortem, peri-mortem and post-mortem trauma all have different features, which help to distinguish them. The features of each are described below.
Ante-mortem traumaAnte-mortem trauma is useful for establishing an individual’s identity because it can be matched to medical records or personal knowledge of the deceased. Injuries can be identified as ante-mortem if they show signs of healing, either partial or complete. After one to two weeks, signs of healing will be visible at the fracture edge. Some key features of ante-mortem trauma are:
- Injuries show some signs of healing, either partial or complete.
- If the fracture is well-healed, it is difficult to establish how much time has elapsed since the fracture occurred.
- Different people will heal at different rates depending on a range of factors, including the age of the person, their health status, and whether the fracture edges have been effectively reduced and immobilised.
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- Injuries show no signs of healing.
- Injuries could reveal the cause of death, or even be associated with attempts to conceal the deceased’s body (e.g. dismemberment).
- The characteristics of the fracture could indicate whether a weapon was used to cause death and the type of weapon (e.g. gunshot, or knife type).
- Examination of the location of wounds is also significant as this can suggest a positional relationship between attacker and victim, as well as whether the injury was self-inflicted or inflicted by another party.
- Depressed but adhering bone
- Oblique angles on fracture margins
- Smooth edges to fracture margins
- Secondary linear and concentric radiating fractures
- Contrecoup fractures
- Bevelling or flaking on the inner aspects of the primary defect
- Consistent colouring between the fracture surface and adjacent bone
Post-mortem traumaPost-mortem trauma includes any form of damage to the bone after death. The bones of the skeleton often become fragmented by mechanical forces operating on the body in the ground. When bone decays, the soft tissues decompose and the bones become ‘dry’. Dry bone has limited moisture and collagen compared to fresh bone and therefore has less elasticity. The fracture edges in ‘dry’ bone have different characteristics to the fractures in ‘fresh’ bone. In dry bone the edges are often:
- Lighter in colour than the surrounding bone.
- At right angles to the bone and more jagged in appearance and there will be no adhering bone fragments.
- There will also be no radiating or concentric fracture lines.
Assessing TraumaTo assess trauma in a skeleton, it can be useful to pose a series of questions, focusing your analysis. Some good examples are as follows:
- Are there any signs of trauma on the skeleton?
- Is the trauma ante-mortem, peri-mortem or post-mortem?
- If it is ante-mortem, is it healed or not?
- Can the injury be associated with medical records to establish identity?
- Was the trauma likely caused by accidental or intentional violence?
- Was the trauma caused by blunt force or sharp force trauma?
- Is the trauma peri-mortem and if so is it consistent with the cause of death?
Have you suffered from a fractured bone that has affected the way that you live or get around? Did the bone take longer to heal than expected? If so, then why? Please add a comment below.
As you’ve just learned, trauma can be ante-, peri-, or post-mortem. It can also be further categorised based on the type of weapon or force used to inflict the injury. Read the next article to find out more about how to identify trauma based on further subdivisions.
Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology
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