Legal Dictionary

clinical death

Definition of clinical death


clinical death (plural clinical deaths)

  1. (medicine, law) A state in which usual medically observable vital signs-such as respiration, heartbeat, and corneal reflex-are not present, but from which patients are sometimes revived.

    * 1988, Andrea K. Scott, "Death Unto Life: Anencephalic Infants as Organ Donors," Virginia Law Review, vol. 74, no. 8, p. 1533,The body dies in stages, beginning at clinical death, then brain death, biological death, and finally, cellular death.

Related terms

  • clinically dead

See also

Further reading

Clinical death is the popular term for cessation of blood circulation and breathing. It occurs when the heart stops beating in a regular rhythm, a condition called cardiac arrest. The term is also sometimes used in resuscitation research.

Stopped blood circulation has historically been difficult to reverse. The absence of blood circulation and vital functions related to blood circulation was considered to be the definition of death. In the middle of the 20th century it became possible to often reverse cardiac arrest through cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), defibrillation, epinephrine injection, and other treatments to restore normal heartbeat and circulation. Instead of death, cardiac arrest came to be called "clinical death", meaning the clinical appearance of death. Clinical death is now seen as a medical condition that precedes death rather than actually being dead.

At the onset of clinical death, consciousness is lost within several seconds. Measurable brain activity stops within 20 to 40 seconds. Irregular gasping may occur during this early time period, and is sometimes mistaken by rescuers as a sign that CPR is not necessary. During clinical death, all tissues and organs in the body steadily accumulate a type of injury called ischemic injury.


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