Cadaver lab is one of the most intimidating places to learn anatomy. The labs are cold, the smell is odd, and then of course there are the bodies.
Preparing for a cadaver lab can make the whole experience a little easier. Here are my top five tips:
- Don’t go into lab on an empty stomach
- Watch a few dissection videos beforehand
- Let someone else do the cutting and dissection first
- Wear a lab coat, scrubs or clothes that you don’t mind getting messy
- Remind yourself; everyone else is anxious too
I’ll get into them all in much more detail, later in this article.
As a med student myself, these are the kind of things I wish I’d known beforehand!
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
How to Survive Cadaver Lab
Surviving cadaver lab is best done with preparation and awareness. For most people (myself included), a cadaver lab is a foreign place. Temperatures are lowered to slow decomposition. Chemicals are used to keep things sterile.
It’s not your usual classroom!
So here’s how to best handle it…
It’s very easy to feel nauseous and light-headed in a cadaver lab if you’re not used to it.
Having something to eat (light) or drink beforehand can help prevent that. As can flexing your thighs if you feel like passing out (helps your blood circulate better).
It’s also a good idea to take some water to drink with you (if the lab allows it).
Staying hydrated helps you focus and keeps your mind on what you’re observing.
A little off-topic but this is also the same advice I give to med students before going into surgery.
Particularly the squeamish ones who have similar fears of fainting at the sight of blood, tissue, and everything else!
Weird, but many people advise chewing gum (if you’re allowed) in anatomy or cadaver lab.
Apparently, it helps with nausea.
Just be careful your gum doesn’t fall into any cavities!
Surviving in this environment is all about knowing as much as possible about what you might face.
Dissection videos, for the most part, help in that regard.
They’ll show you a lot about how cadavers are stored, placed, and dissected. As well as best practices and the correct use of tools.
Thankfully there are many good sources online where you can watch videos of cadaver lab-based teaching and dissection work.
You don’t have to spend a long time watching these either. Just get a gist of what goes on and how it might look.
Watching videos can help in a couple of ways:
- Identifies potential problems (aspects of the lab you might struggle with)
- Identifies possible strengths (areas you could be of help to others in)
- Shows interesting ways to overcome common problems (e.g. covering a cadaver’s face to make the experience “less personal”)
Obviously, there are many different lab setups and ways to approach cadaver dissections.
So the videos you watch might not be totally applicable to your case!
Let Someone Else Take Control
You might be surprised to learn but not all medical students have to dissect a cadaver. In fact, you can kind of coast through a med school curriculum without even touching one.
….If you let your colleagues do all the work!
The same applies no matter what context (or class) you find yourself in during cadaver lab.
If you think you might have problems, let someone else take the lead instead.
Nobody is going to expect you to start exploring free of supervision your first time around.
Wear Suitable Clothes
Obviously, surviving lab means not bringing home any “bits” to remind yourself of it.
To do that you’re going to want to wear sensible clothes.
Some cadaver labs might be strict on this, others might be a little more liberal.
Your best bet is to wear a white lab coat or a pair of scrubs. Both options are designed for this type of environment and are easy to clean and sterilize for future use.
Another top tip is to bring a spare pair of clothing to change in and out of too.
As well as storing the clothing you did use in cadaver lab in a separate bag or carrier so as not to “contaminate” whatever else it is you’re carrying.
And remember to cover up any part of your body you don’t want splashes on!
Understand: You’re Not the Only One
Most people are weirded out by seeing a dead body for the first time. It’s completely normal.
Entering into a cadaver lab, for the uninitiated, involves staring mortality directly in the face.
To not feel even slightly emotionally stirred by that would be quite unusual.
So take anyone who you might feel seems “confident” in that environment, with a grain of salt.
Inside, they’re probably just as nervous.
The Importance of Cadavers for Medical Study
If you’re in a cadaver lab for a medical course you might be wondering what the point of it all is.
I know I felt this myself at first – especially when you have so many great anatomy resources to learn from that don’t involve seeing a dead body!
But most schools put a lot of precedence on it. Especially as it gives a chance for students to explore the connections between anatomical structures and how they look in real life.
Most students, as this 2015 study in the Anatomy and Cell Biology Journal shows, are also in favor of it too, however.
It’s seen as being a “fundamental” aspect of anatomy study!
How to Deal With the Cadaver Lab Smell
Interestingly, one of the biggest complaints when it comes to cadaver lab is the smell.
I remember this all too well myself. Formaldehyde (one of the chemicals used to preserve cadavers) is quite pungent. It lingers in the nostrils for quite a while.
The smell is also one of the main reasons that 75% of medical students surveyed in this 2012 study (from the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science) claimed the environment to be “overwhelmingly stressful”.
As for how to deal with it, here are some good pointers:
- Wear a medical mask (bonus tip: apply lavender or tea tree oil to the mask)
- Study in a lab with a good ventilation system
- Step outside and take a pause
- Milk thistle – it can help with the headache caused by the smell (American Family Physician, 2005)
Failing that, you’ll also just get used to it.
Note: Formaldehyde is also likely to make you feel hungry. Yet another reason to eat beforehand!
My Cadaver Lab Experience
I’ve touched on my anatomy lab experiences before (and also given a few recommendations in this article; how to study for anatomy practical) but I’ve never shared my honest opinion on it.
So, here’s how I view cadaver-based learning:
Personally, I only went to the lab during mandatory class time and did all my observations, dissections, etc there.
I saw very little value going after hours (like many colleagues).
Memorization happened with old-school resources (flashcards etc.)
Class Quality is Teacher-dependent
Success and surviving anatomy lab have a lot to do with your supervisor, professor, or teacher.
Get a bad one and the class is miserable.
Get a good one and the class is a joy.
The ones that really challenge you, put you on the spot with questions.
My school didn’t have fresh cadavers.
From that perspective, I’ve never actually seen a cadaver dissected from the surface.
Medically speaking I think it’s very important to see things done in the correct order!
Cadavers Vs Illustrations
Trust me. There’s a big difference between being able to identify a labeled structure on an actual cadaver and one drawn neatly in an atlas or textbook.
The experience is chalk and cheese.
But unless you’re hell-bent on pathology or surgery as a specialty, I’m not sure what the point of seeing a cadaver with all their guts ripped out actually is.
Where to Find Cadaver Dissection Videos
Here are a couple of recommendations on resources you can use:
- Institute of Human Anatomy – amazing YouTube channel that’s actually set in a private cadaver lab. Commonly runs live Q&A’s from inside the lab too.
- Sanjoy Sanyal – Hundreds of short dissection videos based on specific anatomy zones. Sanjoy is a demonstrator at one of the Caribbean med schools. This guy deserves more subs!
It’s also worth Googling around to see if you can find Acland’s videos too. They don’t have an official YouTube channel but you can find a couple of uploads.
They’re considered the “gold standard” when it comes to cadaver-based study.
Books-wise I got a lot out of Rohen’s anatomy; I basically have this to thank for scoring so high…
It’s great if you want photographic review and views from different angles and axis.
Where to Find Cadaver Lab Workshops
Finally, if you’re not a student but still interested in learning anatomy then it could be a good idea to find cadaver workshops locally.
A general search in the US, shows labs offering courses in:
It might be worth hunting down some in your local area to see if you can get some hands-on teaching.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.