Paradoxical Undressing

Paradoxical undressing is a term for a phenomenon frequently seen in cases of lethal hypothermia. Shortly before death, the person will remove all their clothes, as if they were burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Because of this, people who have frozen to death are often found naked and are misidentified as victims of a violent crime.

Why does this happen? According to M.A. Rothschild and V. Schneider, writing in the International Journal of Legal Medicine:

The reason for this paradoxical behaviour seems to be the effect of a cold-induced paralysis of the nerves in the vessel walls, which leads to a vasodilatation, giving a feeling of warmth. Another theory proposes that the reflex vasoconstriction, which happens in the first stage of hypothermia leads to paralysis of the vasomotor center giving rise to the sensation that the body temperature is higher than it really is and in a paradox reaction the person undresses.

But wait! It gets even weirder. Once they've undressed, the dying person will frequently try to crawl into a small, enclosed space. For which reason, victims of hypothermia are often found naked, squeezed into cupboards or beneath beds. This is called Terminal Burrowing Behavior. Again from Rothschild and Schneider:

In 20% of our cases of death due to hypothermia the bodies were found in a position, which at first induced the suspicion of an attempt to hide the body. But after all our examinations together with the police investigations it was clear that no other person was involved. Obviously the strange positions in which the bodies had been found, were the result of a (pre-)terminal behaviour, which - for lack of comparable descriptions in the literature - we have called "terminal burrowing behaviour". The discovery positions always gave the impression of a protective burrow-like or cave-like situation, as the bodies were found under the bed, behind the wardrobe, in a shelf etc.. The clothes of the bodies were always strewn on the ground in front of the final position, sometimes forming a trail. In every case the paradoxical undressing had obviously happened before this self-protective "burrowing behaviour". This is sustained by the fact that the removed clothing was never found at the final position where the body was found, and some of the victims due to cooling had obviously been crawling around. In most cases the final position in which the bodies were found could only be reached by crawling on all fours or flat on the body, resulting in abrasions to the knees, elbows, etc. This crawling to the final position seems to have happened after undressing as there were abrasions to the skin but no damage to the corresponding parts of the removed clothing.

The body of a 91-year-old man was found beneath a bed in the corner of a shed.
The man had burrowed there.

     Posted By: Alex - Tue Apr 14, 2009
     Category: Death | Health | Psychology

Which just goes to prove that no matter how evolved we think we are, in times of crisis our minds revert back to the most basic instincts. Why is that so hard to understand?
Posted by DownCrisis on 04/14/09 at 08:31 AM
I understand how "cold" can be confused with "hot" as I frosted my fingers way back when and it burnt like fire.
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 04/14/09 at 10:04 AM
I heard freezing to death was a 'good' way to die, for this fact that you get an incredible feeling of warmth before it happens. As I read this article though, it sounds like such a sad way to go... reverting back to the comfort of fetal position.
Posted by Becky on 04/14/09 at 10:24 AM
I do the same thing when I've had too much to drink.
Posted by kingmonkey in Athens, Ontario on 04/14/09 at 11:49 AM
Becky, I don't know how it can be a 'good' way to die. I almost had frostbite in my ears once. Like Expat said it felt very hot. In fact, it was probably the most pain I have ever felt in my life.
Posted by Madd Maxx on 04/14/09 at 12:35 PM
Huh? Peaceful way to die? Maybe a nice instantaneous freeze Jaba the Hut style. Dying from the cold would stink. I mean look at the way these people are dying. Crawling into places to die? Cold weather will cause delirium. So, before they became so hot they decided to strip then began burrowing for a place to die they probably couldn't complete a thought for hours thereby minimizing any chance of getting out of the situation.

Gimme some sleeping pills, a hang glider, a clown costume and a cliff. Double the sleeping pills. The clown costume and hang glider is just so I get the 15 minutes I'm owed.
Posted by Pablo on 04/14/09 at 05:50 PM
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