Electric Shock: What Is It, Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Safety

Electric Shock: What Is It, Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Safety

Electric shock injuries can be very serious and life-altering and it’s important that people know what it is, what it isn’t, what its causes and symptoms are, and what treatments are appropriate for injured victims.

Being aware of this information will help people prevent or reduce the extent of injuries, protect their loved ones and themselves, and know what to do if tragedy strikes. 

What is electric shock?

Electric shock is not electrocution. When a person is shocked, an electrical charge causes the person to suffer serious, all-too-often life-altering injuries – but the victim is still alive. Electrocution, on the other hand, is fatal. It occurs when an electrical charge kills the victim.

The distinction is an important one because the difference between these two concepts is life and death.

What are the causes of electric shock?

An electric shock is caused when a person is exposed to and/or comes into contact with a source of electricity, directly or indirectly sending an electrical current through a portion of the person’s body.

Causes of electric shock can include:

  • Contact with a powerline or electrical arc flash
  • Accidental contact with exposed electrical sources
  • Faulty electrical wiring, installations and repairs
  • Contact with metal, growing vegetation, or other conductive material exposed to electrical current, such as a metal ladder that touches a powerline or other exposed wire
  • Accidental contact with a downed power line, or with the earth near a downed powerline
  • Faulty swimming pool pumps or swimming pool lights, unbonded surfaces near a pool, or pool deck outlets lacking GFIC safety devices
  • Shock from faulty or unprotected electrical products, such as household appliances (e.g., hair dryers and toasters), power tools, medical devices, outlets, electrical plugs and extension cords
  • Three-prong-to-two-prong grounded plug adapters
  • Lightning from thunderstorms
  • Construction machinery, such as cranes, scaffolds, lifts, dump trucks, ladders, and long conductive handled tools making contact with power lines
  • Contact with electrical machinery
  • Contact with electricity-based weapons such as tasers
  • Entering switch cabinets,  step-down transformers, or electrical cabinets without authorizations
  • Failure to enforce Lock Out/Tag Out (LOTO) safety procedures

Other factors that may play a role in being shocked and the severity of the injuries that ensue include:

  • The voltage involved
  • The amperage of the electric current involved
  • The pathway that the electric charge took in the person’s body (e.g., through the heart, muscles, head, eyes and/or chest, or hand-to-hand)
  • How long the victim had contact with the electrical source
  • What the health and/or medical condition of the victim was prior to the shock
  • Whether the electrical current was direct (DC) or alternating (AC)

Are there any electric shock symptoms and injuries that can result from being shocked?

The most common electric shock symptoms and injuries resulting from electrical shock include:

  • Amputation
  • Severe burns (external and internal)
  • Cardiac arrest and/or arrhythmia and/or fibrillation of the heart
  • Heart muscle damage
  • Brain injuries
  • Nerve damage
  • Memory loss
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory failure
  • Spine injury (injuries to the neck and back that occur when the electrical charge physically and forcefully throws a victim)
  • Deformity at point of contact
  • Cataracts
  • Loss of kidney function
  • Secondary injuries caused by post-shock falls
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Headaches
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Muscle pain
  • Compartment syndrome (which occurs when muscle damage causes a person’s limbs to swell)
  • Shortness of breath/Chest pain
  • Paralysis
  • Vision, speech and hearing problems
  • Confusion
  • Muscle, tendon, and even disc injuries caused by  involuntary contractions when the “let go” threshold is exceeded

Can a victim experience muscle pain after electric shock?

Yes. Muscle pain after electric shock from involuntary contractions, or from primary injury from the circuit created after an electrical shock, is the most common symptom after being shocked. In some cases when there is significant muscle damage, not only will there be muscle pain, but the victim may also experience “compartment syndrome” or “complex regional pain syndrome” which occurs when muscle damage causes a person’s limbs to swell to the point that the arteries are so compressed that they cease to supply blood to a person’s limbs, and/or when autonomic nervous system damage results

What does it mean if a victim experiences a headache after electric shock?

If a victim experiences a headache after electric shock, it could mean that a significant injury has occurred. As painful and unpleasant as the headache itself, may be, it could be the sign that the victim is suffering from a neurological or brain injury that requires immediate specialized care and treatment, especially if a person’s head has made direct contact with the power source.

What to do after an electric shock?

After an electric shock it’s vital that victims seek and obtain medical treatment as soon as possible. This is advisable even if there are no visible injuries, such as external burns.

It will help to combat, lessen and/or prevent the devastating effects of the severe, life-altering injuries and symptoms described above, and others that may develop over days, weeks, months, and even years.

Additionally, a medical examination will allow trained doctors and health care providers to discover the internal injuries that can result from thermal injury, electroporation, and/or biochemical cascades, caused by electric shock, that would likely not otherwise be apparent. They will look for elevated CK’s (creatine kinase) in the blood labs, as a marker.

Surgery, including skin grafting, may be necessary for:

  • Severe burns
  • Removal of damaged muscle
  • Treating internal injuries
  • Amputation of affected appendages and/or limbs
  • Repair of secondary fractures

Safety advice for first responders

Here is safety advice for first responders and others to keep in mind when they are attempting to help someone who has been injured in an electrical accident:

  • Before touching the victim, make sure the victim is no longer in contact with the electrical source.
  • Before touching the victim, make sure the victim is no longer within the concentric circles of “step voltage.” Also referred to as “step potential,” or “voltage gradient”, this phenomenon describes how the conductor of electricity gives off rippling waves of voltage which can injure or kill a person, even though he or she has not even touched or made direct contact with the downed powerline or other conductor.
  • Turn off  or disconnect the electrical power source first,when possible.
  • If the electricity cannot be turned off immediately, separate the victim from the electrical source if circumstances permit. It’s essential to remember that this should only be attempted if the responder is certain that he or she will not make contact with the power source. Additionally, the responder must take care to not use anything metal and/or moist because both are conductors of electricity. Responders should use a non-conductive material like fiberglass,  dry wood, rubber, rope, or a broom handle to separate a victim from an electricity source.
  • Call 911 as well as local emergency services and the relevant utility or power company that provides the electricity in question.
  • Check for breathing and a heartbeat. If the victim is not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If the person’s heart has stopped beating, you’ll need someone trained to administer CPR to do so.
  • Treat the victim for shock. Signs that a victim is going into shock include vomiting, becoming pale and/or feeling like they’re going to faint. Keep them lying down. If the victim is unconscious, lie them down on their side to allow drainage of fluid. Make sure the person is also covered to preserve body heat, but avoid placing anything over the burn areas, as the fiber could stick to the burns.
  • If you believe the person has injured their spine or neck, do not move them.
  • Treat electrical burns by immersing them in cold water. Do not apply grease or oil. If the burns are severe, cut away any loose clothing and cover the burn area with sterile gauze. Don’t use a Band-Aid or anything that will stick to the burn.
  • Keep the victim warm.

Electric Shock safety tips for home

Electricity is everywhere in our lives, especially at home. But along with the convenience that electricity brings, there is danger, too, that we must all be aware of and take precautions to protect ourselves against electrical shock.

Below are electric shock safety tips that you should consider:

  • Outlets: Make sure the outlets are not loose-fitting. Be sure to replace all missing and/or broken wall plates. Put safety covers on all unused outlets.
  • Line cords: Do not use cords that are frayed or cracked. Keep them out of areas that receive a lot of foot traffic. Do not staple or nail cords to walls, floors or objects. Avoid stuffing cords under carpets, furniture and/or rugs.
  • Extension cords: Do not overload your extensions and make sure they are heavy duty and have safety closures.
  • Plugs: It’s important to double-check that plugs are safely secured in the outlets and never use a plug whose third prong (which is the grounding pin) has been removed.
  • GFCIs: The long name for these are “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters” and their purpose is to prevent an electrical shock hazard by cutting off power when there has been a fault interruption in the electrical current. It’s essential that you regularly test your GFCIs.
  • Light bulbs: Always verify that the wattage of the bulb you’re using matches the size of the fixture. Take care to make sure the bulb is screwed in properly and securely.
  • Circuit breakers and fuses: As with light bulbs, it’s crucial to make sure the sizing is right. Your circuit breakers and fuses must be the correct size and current rating for their circuit. Locate and inform your family members of the location of the main breaker and how to shut off all the power should the circumstances (and safety) so require.
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