Medical Definition of Rigor mortis

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Reviewed on 12/21/2018

Rigor mortis: Literally, the stiffness of death. The rigidity of a body after death. Rigor mortis is a good example of a Latin term (one in this case that was coined in the 19th century) remaining intact in contemporary medical usage (and crime writing).

Rigor mortis is due to a biochemical change in the muscles that occurs several hours after death, though the time of its onset after death depends on the ambient temperature. The biochemical basis of rigor mortis is hydrolysis in muscle of ATP, the energy source required for movement. Without ATP, myosin molecules adhere to actin filaments and the muscles become rigid.

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Reviewed on 12/21/2018