Rigor mortis (Latin: rigor "stiffness", mortis "of death") is one of the recognizable signs of death, caused by chemical changes in the muscles after death, causing the limbs of the corpse to become stiff and difficult to move or manipulate.In humans, it commences after about three to four hours, reaches maximum stiffness after 12 hours, and gradually dissipates until approximately 48 to 60 hours after death.
After death, cellular respiration in organisms ceases to occur, depleting the corpse of oxygen used in the making of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is no longer provided to operate the SERCA pumps in the membrane of the sarcoplasmic reticulum, which pump calcium ions into the terminal cisternae. This causes calcium ions to diffuse from the area of higher concentration (in the terminal cisternae and extracellular fluid) to an area of lower concentration (in the sarcomere), binding with troponin and allowing for crossbridging to occur between myosin and actin proteins.
Unlike in normal muscular contraction, after death, the body is unable to complete the cycle and release the coupling between the myosin and actin, creating a state of muscular contraction until the breakdown of muscle tissue by enzymes (endogenous or bacterial) during decomposition. As part of the process of decomposition, the myosin heads are degraded by the enzymes, allowing the muscle contraction to release and the body to relax.
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