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Massage Today
April, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 04

Dissection: The Ultimate Educational Experience

By David Kent, LMT, NCTMB

Have you ever wondered what the tissues look like under your patient's scars? Or how these tissues were affected by a knee or hip joint replacement? Have you ever wondered what an artery filled with plaque looks like or how easy or difficult it is to break a piece of plaque off the arterial wall during a massage? What does the inside of the chest cavity look like after the sternum has been cut in half and the chest has been spread apart for bypass surgery? Or the wrist that has experienced a carpel tunnel release procedure?

Would it be helpful for you to see and touch cancerous tissues? How valuable would it be to see, touch and compare the same muscle, such as a bicep or trapezius, on multiple specimens of different body types and genders at the same time? Are you curious about how the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle tendons merge to form the Achilles tendon? Or the relationship between the sciatic nerve and the piriformis muscle? Would you like to see how close a surgeon gets to the spinal cord during a laminectomy? Graduates of a full body dissection seminar have seen and touched the body, and dissected each layer, to know the answers to these and many more questions. The knowledge graduates gain and the refinements they make to their palpation skills is immediately applicable. Graduates say the experience transformed their treatment style and approach on many levels. A full body dissection is a rare educational opportunity that allows you to see and touch the structures that form (anatomy) the human body and understand how they function (physiology). The experience fundamentally changes your understanding of the human body.


If you find human anatomy dissection exhibits such as Body Worlds or BODIES fascinating, then you will feel comfortable in the dissection lab. I have been teaching dissection at the University of South Florida, College of Medicine, in Tampa since 1993. One third of the students in each dissection seminar are prior graduates of the program; many have attended five to eight times. The seminars were initially designed for massage therapists, however, over the years students have included a variety of health care professions from Acupuncture Physicians that want to refine their needle placement and depth, to physical therapists, nutritionists and others that want to learn more about the human body.


dissecting students - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Photo 2: Prior to dissecting students inspect the cadavers for scars, surgical incisions and palpate boney landmarks. Each seminar begins with a tribute to honor the exquisite souls who bequeathed (donated) their bodies to science. We hold a dedication to our "Silent Teachers" for the privilege of being their students. We commit to embrace the valuable knowledge they are about to teach us and to apply that knowledge to the benefit of our patients.


Next we palpate the boney landmarks and inspect the cadavers for scars and surgical incisions. Even when we identify a surgical site, we don't know the nature of the surgery until we look inside the body (Photo 2). Signs of coronary bypass surgery might be easy to identify, but until we start the dissection, we don't really know what the scar indicates. One thing you will realize quickly is that you don't have to be a doctor to spot pathology. As we dissect through the layers of the body we uncover: joint fusions, pleural adhesions, aneurysms, hernias, cirrhosis of the liver, heart bypass, pacemakers and much more. These insights bring a whole new awareness about the effects of disease on the body. This new level of understanding causes students to judge contraindications and treat patients with even more care and sensitivity. Another interesting part of the dissection process is identifying anomalies (Photo 3). Over the years, students have identified a cadaver missing an upper trapezius on one side, another had a levator scapula with accessory rib attachments, a third had muscles missing areas of fiber in the leg that were filled with fat, just to name a few.

cadaver - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Photo 3: A group of students go to each cadaver in the lab, comparing various structures for size and shape. Clarity

Dissection allows students to better understand the effects of various surgical procedures. For example, during bypass surgery, the great saphenous vein is removed from the lower extremity. This is what causes the long scar on the medial side of a patient's thigh and leg. During a dissection seminar, you learn exactly what structure was removed and how deep it was embedded in the thigh and leg. You see how it was reattached and used for the coronary bypass surgery. You know exactly what tissues and systems of the body were affected during the operation and how the tissues healed. The dissection process allows you to see through both the doctor's eyes and the patient's body at the same time, giving you greater clarity and insight into treating your patients.

Dissecting - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Photo 4: Dissecting layer by layer is gives students a clear understanding of the body and a new level of confidence personally and professionally. Confidence

The percentage of health care providers who perform a human dissection during the course of their education is relatively low. Taking part in a dissection creates a special bond, or level of respect, among its participants in the medical community. Graduates report a new level of confidence personally and professionally after dissecting every structure of the body, layer by layer, from skin to bone (Photo 4). The ability to go into a dissection lab to see and touch the structures that form the human body is a rare experience. Initially students enter the dissection lab simply to gain a better understanding of the human body. However, they are all amazed at the positive impact their new knowledge had on every area of their life.

Click here for previous articles by David Kent, LMT, NCTMB.


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