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Massage Today
January, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 01

Dissection: A Unique Way to Learn

By David Kent, LMT, NCTMB

Our massage clients include a wide variety of body types, sizes, ages and genders. Many have undergone surgeries, some structures have been removed, repaired or replaced. They have been diagnosed with problems in the circulatory, respiratory, reproductive, lymphatic, digestive and/or nervous systems.

Have you ever thought it would be beneficial to see and touch the muscles, nerves, organs and bones? Compare diseased to normal organ tissue? Examine the same structure on multiple specimens? Did know this type of learning opportunity has existed for massage therapists, acupuncturists, physical therapists, personal trainers and others since 1993? The 2013 class will represent twenty years of these professions performing full body dissections at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa.


Each class begins with a dedication to our "Silent Teachers" for the privilege of being their students. They donated (bequeathed) their bodies to this program and we acknowledge, respect, thank and honor their souls. We commit to embrace the valuable knowledge they are about to teach us and to apply that knowledge to the benefit of our patients.


Very limited information is received about each cadaver and only includes: gender, sex, age, cause of death and occupation. We start by palpating boney landmarks and inspecting the cadavers for scars and surgical incisions.


dissection - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 1 Students are grouped in teams of seven. Together, they will dissect an entire body, superficial to deep, layer-by-layer, skin to bone. Their dissection exploration will also include the spinal cord, heart, lungs, organs, joints and the cranium.


As students dissect, their understanding, confidence and clinical application of knowledge grows. Can you think of a better way to learn about the skin, fascia, muscles, nerves, ligaments, vessels and other structures that compose the body? This type of study will clarify your understanding of the anatomy and eliminate any misperceptions that might exist.


Irregularities or deviations from the norm are discovered throughout each class. Examples include a unilateral sternocleidomastoid with four divisions, two sternal and two clavicular. Other examples include an upper trapezius muscle that did not exist on one side or adhesions throughout the body, arthritic joints, swollen lymph nodes and cancerous growths.

dissection - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 2 During class we remove a portion of the carotid artery and cut and peel away the arterial wall to expose a tubular structure that looks like a drinking straw formed by atherosclerotic plaque. Palpating this structure in a living person when treating in the anterolateral neck could cause a piece of plaque to break loose, producing a stroke. In the anatomy lab, students can palpate these structure without harm whiling clarifying its position to the sternocleidomastoid muscle. This level of education helps the students better understand the effects their treatments can have on the body.


It is common for students to uncover pacemakers, artificial hips, knees, shoulders and intervertebral discs. They examine the rods, screws and connectors used for a spinal fusion.


dissection - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 3 We also enter the cranium and vertebral column exposing the dura mater, arachnoid mater, the brain, spinal cord and cauda equine. Students open each joint throughout the body. In the knee, they examine articular cartilage, each meniscus, the cruciate and other ligaments. In the wrist, we investigate the carpel bones and the tunnel they form. The tendons and medium nerve that past through the carpel tunnel and the clinical significance created from swelling, infections, surgeries and/or trauma to the wrist. At least one cadaver in each class has undergone coronary bypass surgery. We palpate the metal wires that were used during the surgery to reconnect the sternum that was cut in half. We open the chest to see the lungs cradling the heart. We remove the lungs and inspect coronary bypass repair from every angle.


During an acupuncture treatment, the depth of needle insertion into the body is determined by multiple factors including the nature of the patient's condition, their age, size, etc. Acupuncturists check the accuracy of their needle placement by inserting them into the cadaver prior to starting the dissection.


Books, videos, computer programs, anatomical charts and models are all helpful aids in learning about the human body. Performing a dissection is a unique opportunity and you leave the lab with a new level of confidence and knowledge in your skills. Graduates have a clear understanding of the interconnection of the structures that form the body and how they function. Dissection allows students to feel the elasticity, density, size and position of structures throughout the body. While performing a full body dissection is not part of our standard curriculum, the opportunity is definitely available.

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


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