I spent my Tuesday morning in the most extraordinary way: wearing a white lab coat emblazoned with ‘For Dissecting Room Use Only’ on the back in one of the KCL Hodgkin Building’s dissecting laboratories with a group of similarly curious individuals from a background that ranged from osteopathy to chiropractic to massage. We were brought together, in what can only be described as a dream come true for me, by The London Massage Company’s ‘Day in a Dissection Lab’ workshop. I have wanted to work on a cadaver since high school (& yes, I realise this is a little bit weird).
I was a tad nervous when I entered the lab, and even while looking & keeping right (as instructed) , I couldn’t help but catch glimpses of the preserved specimens adorning the room. Actual human skeletons dangled from their stands and added – dare I say – a homely presence to the stainless steel sterility of the room. The smell didn’t put me off like it did some of the others – it just smelled like 5th floor Cell Biology at the U of A – kind of comforting?? Smells like home! Our teacher for the day, Jane, instructed us to put on some lab coats & then passed our workbooks for the day out… and before we knew, it was business time!
To ease us into the more macabre events of the morning, we started with bones – namely, 2 boxes of wingbones (scapulae) & a box of humeri. In small groups, we compared ‘our’ bones. This was an interesting exercise because it became remarkably obvious that no two bones are alike, and that vast differences (in size, thickness, groove depth, fossa indentation, etc) exist between samples. Often we assume that because one experiences pain, they must have sustained an injury, but this helped impress in our minds that individuals can be pre-disposed to certain injuries because of the morphology of their skeletal system. I’m a very hands-on learner, so being able to hold an actual scapula, and then palpate my partner’s scapula formed a solid connection in my mind, and I can now easily visualise what the scapula might look like in a person who has a short or tight pectoralis minor 🙂 Good to know.
Okay, so bones were a walk in the park! It was time for some heavier material. In my 27.9 years of life experience, this was my first time seeing dead human tissue. I went in without any expectations, and I came out realising that underneath the skin, we are very similar to our animal kingdom friends. I couldn’t help but compare (in my mind) the human tissue to cooked animal meat, and luckily it wasn’t just me. Cautiously, my course mates started volunteering bits and pieces of the conversations they were having in their minds: ‘kind of looks like salami,’ one woman said describing a cross-section of an arm with skin intact. We all decided then and there that – at least for lunchtime- we were vegetarian.
About 10 different arms were laid out around the room for us to examine. These were all dissected differently so we could get a really good handle on muscle size, order, and origins and insertions. Some arms had the fascia intact, which was quite fascinating to see – – it’s much more substantial than I imagined it would be! Teres minor & major were surprisingly meaty, for lack of a better term, and the coracoid process is a hot spot for muscle attachment; suddenly it was very easy to imagine how muscular imbalances can cause so many issues.
The legs were probably my favorite – I didn’t even know I was a ‘leg girl’! They were very heavy, but that didn’t stop me from lifting them, turning them, flexing and extending them, and really getting up close and personal with them. At one point, I was totally engrossed with the knee joint, and noticed the woman next to me flinching and moving her head back everytime I made the leg extend. ‘Relax! I’m not going to kick you,’ I reassured her. Actually, I wasn’t so sure that I wouldn’t; legs are VERY heavy, and it was a lot of work for my two little biceps to simulate the work of the hamstrings. It was supremely fascinating to follow the muscles of the leg from their origins to insertions and easy to appreciate the complexity of our construction.
I personally have really tight leg muscles – gastroc & soleus (calf muscles), adductors, illiotibial band (ITB), hamstrings, quads – you name it, I get tightness or pain there. From my kinetic chain assessment course at the end of January, I can also tell you that this is likely due to my pronation/external rotation/ tight MTP joints/all of the above. Take my ITB – on days when my right IT band is really tight, forward lunges cause a screaming localised pain halfway between my knee and hip, on the outside of my thigh. In my not-to-scale mind, the IT band must be MASSIVE in order to cause so much pain. Actually, it’s very hard to determine where the ITB begins and ends because it is literally a slight thickening of the fascia. When the laboratory demonstrators are preparing the specimen, they guess at where the ITB begins and ends and make educated cuts.
Next we looked at some torsos & tried to pinpoint the elusive QL – Quadratus Lumborum, which is a major source of lower back pain. I probably should have paid more attention to this part, but after two hours of analysing arms and legs, my mind was starting to wander. For the final half hour, we went off-leash and were allowed to open any of the dissection tables that we wanted to. Most of the cadavers were in their 80s and had died of cancers, or other ‘common’ ailments. There was a striking difference in the state of the cadavers that were ‘professionally’ dissected vs those that were being dissected by the medical students, so I called it quits after peaking in a few tables. Then, I washed my hands 3 times.
After lunch (vegetarian, & very bland), we had the option of visiting the Gordon Museum of Pathology, which is the UK’s largest medical museum. The collection is spread over three floors, with 4 interconnected rooms on each level. I would try to explain it, but this video does an excellent job of introducing the museum. Those who knew me while I was doing my undergraduate genetics degree at the U of A will not be surprised to find that my favorite section of the museum was that containing congenital birth defect specimen. I finally saw first-hand examples of foetal teratomas and cyclopic babies. I don’t mean to be gory in my interests, but as a geneticist, it is my nature to study the mutations in order to learn more about wildtype.
To all of my fitness professional or massage therapist friends: I couldn’t recommend this course enough. I’m definitely looking forward to taking more course from the London Massage Company. To everyone: please don’t be offended if I seem to be dissecting you with my eyes over the next few days 😉 I’m sure it will pass!
Icing on the cake: yesterday, I discovered the TV series called ‘Anatomy for Beginners.’ In it, Dr Gunther von Hagens (Body Worlds) and pathologist Professor John Lee present a real-time dissection of an unpreserved human cadaver. I’ve already watched the first episode on movement, and am looking forward to watching the rest of the series. It is very educational, and not as creepy as you might expect.
P.S. I’ve still been doing my tabatas, I just haven’t been posting them I will do better!