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Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2002 Oct;126(10):1197-200.

Esophageal variceal hemorrhage presenting as sudden death in outpatients.

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Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg, Germany.



Some autopsy studies have dealt with histologic features of esophageal varices after different therapeutic procedures. However, to the best of our knowledge, no reports have been published describing outpatient characteristics that are associated with fatal esophageal variceal hemorrhage in a medicolegal autopsy population.


To (1) assess the incidence of sudden deaths from esophageal variceal hemorrhage in an unselected medicolegal autopsy population and (2) determine demographics of outpatients dying from esophageal variceal hemorrhage with special reference to blood alcohol concentrations at the time of death.


We performed a retrospective study of all autopsy cases of sudden death from esophageal variceal hemorrhage from a total of 6038 medicolegal autopsies performed over a 5-year period (1997-2001). We analyzed individual cases to determine gender, age, location and histology of bleeding esophageal varices, pathogenic mechanism for esophageal varices, concomitant underlying diseases contributing to fatal outcome, body mass index, circumstances at the death scene, and blood alcohol levels at the time of death. We reviewed the results of toxicologic analyses of alcohol concentrations in samples of femoral venous blood and urine obtained at autopsy; concentrations had been determined by gas chromatography with mass spectroscopy and enzymatic assays.


We identified 45 cases of fatal esophageal variceal hemorrhage that occurred out of hospital and presented as sudden death; the corresponding 5-year incidence in this autopsy population was 0.75%. All of the deceased were white; the male-female ratio was 1.6:1, and the mean age was 50.6 years. Ruptured esophageal varices were located in the lower third of the esophagus in 44 cases. Cirrhosis of the liver was present in all cases (alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver in 42 cases), and a hepatocellular carcinoma was present in 3 cases. Alcohol-induced pancreatic tissue alterations were frequently found. The results of toxicologic analysis were positive for alcohol in femoral venous blood and urine in 30 cases. Blood alcohol levels at the time of death were less than 100 mg/dL (21.7 mmol/L) in 15 cases, between 100 and 200 mg/dL (21.7 and 43.4 mmol/L) in 8 cases, and greater than 200 mg/dL (43.4 mmol/L) in the remaining 7 cases.


Apart from abnormalities in coagulation due to poor liver function in long-term alcohol users, acute alcohol intake may represent an important factor influencing mortality in individuals with esophageal variceal hemorrhage. Acute alcohol intake has transient effects on blood clotting time caused by ethanol and its main metabolites. In the present study, bloodstains at the death scene and unusual body positions of the deceased that aroused suspicion of a violent death were leading reasons for conducting a medicolegal autopsy. Apart from aspects of forensic pathology, the demographics of our study population are also noteworthy from the viewpoint of social medicine. The data we present stress the importance of fatal esophageal variceal hemorrhage as a relevant cause of sudden death occurring outside the hospital in socially isolated, alcohol-addicted individuals.

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