Autopsy diagnosis of fat embolism syndrome

Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2011 Sep;32(3):291-9. doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e31822a6428.


The fat embolism syndrome (FES) is considered a clinical diagnosis. It typically occurs within several days following major traumatic injury, usually involving fractures of the pelvis and/or lower extremities. Fat embolism syndrome is characterized by the onset of respiratory, neurological, cutaneous, and hematologic manifestations and is thought to be related to intravascular embolization of fat, presumably arising from within the fractured bone marrow space. In its most severe form, FES can be lethal. The presence of fat emboli within the microvasculature of the lungs, brain, and sometimes other organs verifies the clinical impression of FES. Despite its relatively well-known clinical characterization, debate exists within the clinical literature regarding the most appropriate diagnostic criteria for FES. Given this fact, along with the fact that FES is a clinical diagnosis, it is not surprising that forensic pathologists may be somewhat reluctant to make a postmortem diagnosis of FES, especially in cases where insufficient clinical information is available. A case of fatal FES is presented in which rapid clinical deterioration occurred, followed by death, such that a clinical diagnosis of FES was never rendered. We propose that, given the correct circumstances, clinical scenario, and autopsy findings, it is appropriate and acceptable to make a postmortem diagnosis of FES. A multitiered approach to the postmortem diagnosis of FES is presented.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Traffic
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Coronary Artery Disease / complications
  • Embolism, Fat / diagnosis*
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Fractures, Bone / complications
  • Heart Arrest
  • Hematocrit
  • Hemoglobins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / complications
  • Lower Extremity / injuries
  • Male
  • Multiple Trauma / complications*
  • Pelvis / injuries
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / complications
  • Syndrome


  • Hemoglobins