Tongue bite injuries – A diagnostic criterium for death in epileptic seizure?

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Ulrich J and Maxeiner H(2003) [Tongue bite injuries – A diagnostic criterium for death in epileptic seizure?]. Arch Kriminol 212:1-2 19–29.

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Abstract: Bite marks of the tongue are often associated with epileptic seizures, although information about the real frequency of bite marks of the tongue is hard to find. This is also true for their presence in deaths of epileptics or in deaths in general. The purpose of this investigation was to analyze the frequency of bite marks of the tongue in deaths of epileptics in comparison to a control group. Further points of interest were the spectrum of the causes of death recorded, toxicological data as well as the presence and localization of external head injuries. The study group consisted of 105 individuals with a known history of epilepsy, the control group of 107 individuals with sudden cardiac death. Autopsy reports were analyzed retrospectively. In the first group bite marks of the tongue were seen in 21% (in the subgroup "observed death during seizure" even in 64%) and were thus significantly more frequent than in the control group (2%). In 35 cases of the study material an unnatural manner of death was found (trauma, especially craniocerebral trauma, drowning, asphyxia, intoxication) and in 70 cases a natural death was assumed. However, in 41 of these the exact cause of death was not ascertainable. According to the SUDEP criteria (Ficker 2000, Nilsson 1999) 29 of these cases could be categorized as possible or probable SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy) with 17 showing bite marks of the tongue. The fact that half of the remaining 12 cases showed bite marks of the tongue suggests at least for these cases that death occurred during the seizure. Head injuries were reported in 41% of the epilepsy group--in the subgroup "observed death during seizure" in 73%. Our investigation did not produce evidence for a higher frequency of bite marks of the tongue in cases in which resuscitation had been attempted. In our experience the presence of fresh bite marks of the tongue--according to histological findings--is a useful signs for the assignment of death to an epileptic seizure and especially for death during acute convulsion.



  • Retrospective study addressing the ability of medical examiners to ascertain the involvement of epilepsy and seizure in sudden death. Autopsy records from 107 non-epilepsy patients who died of sudden cardiac death and 105 epilepsy patients were compared. 1 in 50 decedents in the former group had bite marks on the tongue, while 1 in 5 in the latter group did. If only cases of death during witnessed seizure were considered, almost two-thirds of epilepsy patients had bite marks on the tongue. These ratios suggest it is a fairly specific indicator.


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