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J Trauma. 2004 Aug;57(2):301-4.

Blunt cardiac trauma caused by fatal falls from height: an autopsy-based assessment of the injury pattern.

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Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg, Germany.



Falls from height are contributing widely to population morbidity and mortality, especially in urban settings. The presence of blunt cardiac injuries can increase morbidity among these patients, leading even to death. Some clinical studies and case reports have been published on the subject, but a systematic autopsy-based approach to the subject is missing in the literature of recent decades.


This study reviewed 61 cases of fatal fall from height that were subjected to a full autopsy at the Institute of Legal Medicine, Hamburg, Germany, from 1998 to 2002. The autopsy protocols and available clinical information were evaluated for assessment of the cardiac injury pattern.


Cardiac injuries were found in 33 cases (54%), all of which involved falls from heights exceeding 6 m. In 16 cases, the cardiac injuries were the cause of death or contributed to the fatal outcome. In five of these cases, the individuals possibly could have recovered from their trauma if their heart injury had been sufficiently diagnosed and adequately treated in time. The most frequent finding was pericardial tearing (45%). Tears caused by stretching of the epicardium in the area wherein the inferior vena cava leads into the right atrium and epicardial hematoma were present in 11 cases (33%). Endocardial tears of the atria were found in six cases (18%), and did not occur during falls from heights lower than 11 m. Transmural tears to the right atrium were present in 10 cases (39%), and to the left atrium in 6 cases (18%). These tears occurred with increasing frequency in relation to greater heights. When the heights were lower than 15 m, these tears were smaller than 1 cm in diameter, but when the heights exceeded 15 m, extensive irregular tears were observed. Sternal fractures were seen in 76% of all cases involving heart injuries. In 16% of these cases, the fractures were multiple. Only 18% of the cases without cardiac injuries had sternal fractures, and none of these was multiple. Thus, the presence of severe sternal fractures can be used as an indicator of possible cardiac trauma.


A thorough cardiologic diagnosis should always be performed for patients who survive a fall from height. These patients should be transported to a unit capable of performing cardiopulmonary bypass, and explorative thoracotomy should be considered.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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