Electrical burns are one of the most serious injuries sustained following electrocution. Burns may initially appear to be minor, and the real damage to the tissues under the skin may not be readily evident. Deep tissue damage can be extensive, sometimes requiring amputation of a limb or a portion of a limb. Electrical burns are usually most severe at the contact point (source and ground). The source is often the head or hands, and the ground is often the feet. The length and duration of contact with the electrical source generally determines the extent of injury.
• High-voltage electrical burns- typically exhibit a contact burn where the electrical source was touched, as well as a burn where the person was grounded. Tissues along the pathway of the current can also be damaged, and the extent of burn on the outside is often not a good indication of the damage under the skin surface.
• Arc burns- do not occur at low voltage. These injuries occur when electrical energy passes from an area of high resistance to one of low resistance. There will be burn wounds at the site of contact and at the ground contact point. There may be flash and flame burns, so burns of varying severity may be observed.
• Flash burns- caused by a nearby electrical arc that passes over the surface of the body. Internal tissues are not affected. Burns may be large but are generally superficial.
• Flame burns- these electrical burns are the direct result of clothing catching on fire, causing thermal burns.
• Low-voltage burns- these generally require several seconds of contact with the source. These burns may range from superficial to severe, depending upon the length of contact.
• Oral burns- these occur in the pediatric age group, when children bite or suck on an electrical cord. Current crosses from one side of the mouth to the other. Damage may be severe, and deformity may occur. These electrical burns may appear less serious than they really are initially and may compromise the airway.
Victims who sustain electrical burns generally require admission to hospital, and should be referred to a trauma center or burn center if their injuries are severe. Although survival rates from severe burns have improved, there are still very high rates of significant morbidity and amputation following severe electrical burns. Treatment must be aggressive and sustained and the victim may require extensive rehabilitation to regain function.
Because electrical burns can be serious and require lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, the victim may find him/herself burdened with substantial costs associated with treatment and recovery. They may be unable to work for weeks to months and some may be unable to work in their chosen profession again. The physical, emotional and financial cost of electrical burns can be high; for this reason, victims of such injuries may require legal assistance to determine their rights following the injury, particularly if the injury occurred while working.