Morphologic Markers of Acute and Chronic Stress in Child Abuse

Am J Clin Pathol. 2022 Jun 7;157(6):823-835. doi: 10.1093/ajcp/aqab204.


Objectives: To elucidate pathologic markers of acute and chronic stress found but rarely reported in chronic child abuse.

Methods: Autopsies of 3 cases of fatal child abuse with well-documented chronic maltreatment are reported, with an emphasis on the nontraumatic findings of acute and chronic stress.

Results: Besides the overwhelming physical injuries, all 3 children and 1 additional case obtained for consultation had telogen effluvium, a form of alopecia well known to be associated with stress in adults and some children but never reported in chronic abuse. All 3 had the microscopic findings of markedly involuted thymus, a well-known marker of physiologic stress in children but only occasionally referred to in child abuse. All 3 also had microscopic findings of myocardial necrosis associated with supraphysiologic levels of catecholamine, a well-documented finding associated with stress but rarely reported in fatalities associated with child abuse. Two of the 3 children also had Anitschkow-like nuclear changes in cardiac tissue, markers associated with prior, nonischemic myocardial pathologies that may be associated with prior episodes of acute stress.

Conclusions: Pathologists are urged to explore these markers as supportive evidence in their own investigations of possible child abuse fatalities, especially when associated with stress.

Keywords: Anitschkow; Catecholamines; Child abuse; Myocytolysis; Stress; Telogen effluvium; Thymic involution.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alopecia Areata*
  • Biomarkers
  • Child
  • Child Abuse* / diagnosis
  • Chronic Disease
  • Graft vs Host Disease*
  • Humans


  • Biomarkers