Electrical Injuries

Damage to body tissues caused by the passage of an electric current through the body

  • More common in males
  • Working with electricity is a risk factor
  • Age and genetics are not significant factors

An electric current passing through the body can generate intense heat and burn the tissues. Although burns may occur internally, they are often most obvious on the skin (see Burns). The current may also disrupt the normal functioning of the heart or brain and may be immediately fatal.

Each year in the UK there are an estimated 3,000–4,000 electricity-related injuries and 30–40 resulting deaths. Causes of electrical injuries include accidents in the home and lightning strikes. This type of injury also occurs in people who work in the electricity-generating or construction industries.

The majority of electrical injuries occur as a result of touching exposed electrical wires, faulty switches, or water that is electrified by a wire or device. The danger of receiving an electrical injury is greatly increased in the presence of water because water acts as an excellent conductor of electricity.

Men are at greater risk than women of sustaining an electrical injury because they are more likely to work in industries involving electricity.

What are the symptoms?

General symptoms that are common to many electrical injuries include:

  • Loss of consciousness, which may be short-lived.

  • Dazed, confused behaviour.

  • Burns on the skin.

  • Rapid, shallow breathing.

The severity of these symptoms depends on the voltage of the electricity and the duration of contact with the electric current. In addition, the muscles may become rigid, preventing a person from breaking contact with the electric current. Severe muscle spasms may lead to bone fractures.

Specific symptoms vary depending on the route taken by the electric current through the body. For example, if the current passes through the heart, it may disrupt the rhythm of the heartbeat (see Arrhythmias) and occasionally lead to cardiac arrest. If the current passes through the brainstem, which controls automatic body functions such as breathing, the shock may be fatal (see Brain death). If the person survives such a shock, irreversible brain damage may have occurred.

What can I do?

You should call for medical assistance for anything more than a minor electric shock. If you find someone who has had an electric shock, make sure that the electricity is turned off before you attempt to touch him or her. Find a trained first-aider to carry out resuscitation and other necessary measures; the first-aider should continue these measures until medical help arrives. You should also follow this course of action if you come across someone who has had an injury as a result of being struck by lightning.

Never attempt to rescue a person injured by high-voltage electricity (over 1,000 volts) because the electricity may jump from the victim to you. Keep at least 18 m (60 ft) from the person and call for medical assistance immediately.

What might the doctor do?

Once the person has been admitted to hospital, a full physical examination will be carried out and tissue damage will be assessed. The heartbeat may be monitored to detect an abnormal rhythm. Oxygen may be given and mechanical ventilation (see Intensive therapy unit) may be required. An irregular heart rhythm will probably be treated with an antiarrhythmic drug. Most people recover if they receive first-aid and medical treatment promptly.

Electrical burns

These two fingers have sustained deep burns as a result of direct contact with an uninsulated electrical cable.

Treatment: Skin Grafting

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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