The Shocking Truth about Electrical Injuries

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We all remember the fun we had as children when we shuffled across the living room rug while wearing wool socks and, with stealth-like precision, reached out with one finger to zap our sibling’s arm or better yet, their ear. Running for our lives to hide, we knew retaliation would be launched when we least expected it. We were also acutely aware that it was forbidden to stick a fork, our finger and especially our tongue in the electrical outlets. Electricity was something to be feared and it seemed lightning posed the most dramatic threat, especially if we were taking a bath!

Electrical injuries have become a more common form of trauma with a unique pathophysiology and with high morbidity and mortality. What is significant about electricity’s impact on the human body are the multitude of different types of injuries to multiple organs and systems that occur simultaneously. External burns to hands and legs may be immediately noticeable, but it is vital to remember that the majority of the most life threatening injuries are internal.

High voltage direct current (DC) electrical shock tends to cause a single muscle contraction, actually throwing the victim from the source. These patients tend to have more blunt trauma and in some cases cardiac dysrrhythmias. Low voltage alternating current (AC) electrical shock is three times more dangerous than DC current at the same voltage due to what is termed as the “let-go threshold”.An object electrified with a 120 volt, alternating current (60Hz) exceeds the let-go threshold, causing the muscles in the hands to contract involuntarily, making it impossible for the victim to let go of the object. Cardiac arrest is the most likely outcome of this type of sustained shock.

Electric current can cause injury in three ways:

  • Cardiac arrest due to the electrical effect on the heart
  • Muscle, nerve, and tissue destruction from a current passing through the body
  • Thermal burns from contact with the electrical source

Causes:

  • Accidental contact with exposed parts of electrical appliances or wiring
  • Flashing of electric arcs from high-voltage power lines
  • Lightning
  • Machinery or occupational-related exposures
  • Young children biting or chewing on electrical cords, or poking metal objects into an electrical outlet

Symptoms depend on many things, including:

  • Type and strength of voltage
  • How long you were in contact with the electricity
  • How the electricity moved through your body
  • Your overall health

The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps (WVAC) encourages everyone to be cautious around electricity. Should you witness or come upon and individual experiencing an electrical shock, it is recommended that you:

  • Turn off the electrical current, only if you can do so safely. Unplug the cord, remove the fuse from the fuse box, or turn off the circuit breakers. Simply turning off an appliance may NOT stop the flow of electricity. Do NOT attempt to rescue a person near active high-voltage lines
  • Call 911
  • Do not move the person’s head or neck if the spine may be injured. Electrical injury is frequently associated with explosions or falls that can cause additional severe injuries. You may not be able to notice all of them
  • If the person is in cardiac arrest, begin chest compressions and use an AED

Many people survive electrical trauma. However, long-term, permanent injuries are common, including seizures, aphasia, visual disturbances, headaches, tinnitus, paresis, memory disturbances, muscular pain, fatigue, balance and even personality changes. Electric shock is a traumatic and life-threatening experience, and patients are vulnerable to developing post-traumatic psychiatric disorders.

The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.

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