Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2021.

ELECTRICAL SAFETY
Shocking Effects 

May is Electrical Safety Month. Here's everything you didn't know about electric shock injuries.


BY ANGELO VERZONI 

Most electricians know the tingling sensation of a small amount of electrical current passing through the body. When a crew member is “just a little bit off,” others will often joke they’ve been shocked one too many times, said Derek Vigstol, senior electrical specialist at NFPA, on an NFPA Podcast episode that aired in February. 

But there’s more truth to the joke than most people realize. 

“A subset of [electrical injury patients] are a little off,” said Dr. Neil Pliskin, a neuropsychologist at the Chicago Electrical Trauma Rehabilitation Institute (CETRI). “And what’s off is their thinking speed is slower—it’s harder for them to recall information on their own. Some individuals complain of significant anxiety and depression while never having had symptoms like that before.” 

RELATED: Register now for a daylong NFPA conference series on electrical safety on May 18.

Vigstol interviewed Pliskin and Drs. Raphael Lee and David Weiss for the episode, which aired during National Burn Awareness Week. The three renowned specialists discussed the devastating physical impact electrical shock can have on the human body, from burns and musculoskeletal pain to cardiac arrest, as well as some of the lesser-known effects it can have on the brain. NFPA Journal is revisiting this podcast to mark National Electrical Safety Month, which is observed each year in May. 

Nerves ‘gone haywire’ 

Pliskin said about 75 percent of patients who’ve come to CETRI present with “complaints of failing memories, complaints of concentration difficulties, and significant changes in mood and emotions—to the point that a psychiatrist or psychologist diagnoses conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.” 

It can be especially troubling to see individuals who don’t seem to have major physical injuries exhibit these symptoms, Pliskin added. “Some people who have seemingly minor physical consequences as a result of their injuries have maximal changes in mood, emotion, and thinking abilities,” he said. “I’m talking about firefighters, about emergency medical responders, about people who have been trained to be resistant to stress who now, after they’ve had an electrical shock, don’t want to leave the house, they’re crying all the time, they’re upset, they’re irritable.” 

The physical toll electrical injuries take on the body, including pain and lack of sleep, can exacerbate these behavioral health symptoms, the doctors said. 

“They can have pain throughout their whole bodies, and that just adds to what Dr. Pliskin was stating,” said Weiss, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. “If you have pain, everything is worse.”

Electrical injuries are still not fully understood in medicine, and Lee said CETRI continues to research the phenomenon. “We have made some progress in trying to understand these problems and to develop therapeutic approaches, but we don’t have all the answers,” said Lee, a surgeon and trauma medicine physician. “I think we’re asking the right questions, such as ‘What happens in an electrical shock patient that triggers all these processes?’”

Lee said doctors believe many of the effects are due to nerves not healing correctly. “The nervous system and the muscles are injured,” he said. “And just like when you get a cut on your skin and it heals, it’s not the same as it was before.” 

In terms of treatment, the doctors said it can be difficult to find a one-size-fits-all approach—people have different pain thresholds and biological abilities to heal. In general, Weiss said treatment is aimed at regaining control of a nervous system that’s “gone haywire.” 

“Normally, when you touch a body part it’s interpreted as touch, but in these patients, touch can cause muscle spasms,” Weiss said. “How do you reverse that process? If you let your body control you, that’s a bad thing, so you have to start controlling your body. When that idea is grasped by patients, they go all in and there’s a lot of hope and ability to reverse this process.”

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni.