Electrical burn

Author: Made Ananda Krisna, General Practitioner, Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital, Faculty of Medicine Universitas, Indonesia; Chief Editor: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, September 2015.


What is an electrical burn?

A burn is a form of tissue injury that is caused following a contact with heat, flame, chemicals, electricity, or radiation. When electricity has caused the burn, it is known as an electrical burn.1

Who gets electrical burn?

Anyone who has contact with electrical current can get an electrical burn. Typically, an electrical injury/burn patient is a working, healthy, young man at home or in the workplace.2,3,4

What causes electrical burn?

Electricity is defined as a flow of electrons. Electrons flow when there is a difference of electrical potential between by two points (voltage). The higher the voltage, the higher the current of electrons (the Law of Ohm).

Electrical burn is classically divided by 2 groups:

  • Low-voltage injury (< 1000 V)
  • High-voltage injury (> 1000 V).

How much skin damage is experienced depends on:2

  • Strength of the current: a function of voltage and tissue resistance
  • Type of electrical circuit (direct or alternating current)
  • The current pathway
  • Duration of contact.

What are the clinical features of an electrical burn?

Electrical injury results in tissue/organ damages through 3 different pathways:2

  • Electric current passes through body tissues and causes direct trauma
  • Electrical energy is converted into thermal energy
  • Indirect mechanical effect causing uncontrolled muscle contraction and falls.

Low voltage electrical burn

Low voltage electric current leads to 2 well-circumscribed electrothermal burns:2,6

  1. Contact burn at entry site (eg hands, skull)
  2. Exit wound (eg heels in contact with the ground).

They may be deep partial-thickness or full-thickness burns.6

High voltage electrical burn

High voltage injury may be due to direct contact or flashing.

  • Direct contact, high-voltage injury causes a painless, full-thickness, indented, yellowish-gray skin burn that is sometimes accompanied by central necrosis.2
  • Flashing high voltage injury can cause a superficial burn, a partial thickness burn or devastating full-thickness injury brought about by an electric arc.5

A electric arc or spark, including a lightening strike, is produced between a highly-charged source and the ground, reaching temperatures of up to 2500C.5

  • This high temperature directly burns the skin.
  • The spark ignites clothing; the ensuing flames also burn the skin.
  • Electrical current flowing through body tissues cause electrothermal heating.
  • It results in kissing burns.

A kissing burn is an electric arc generated between two skin surfaces facing each other and sandwiching a joint, typically the elbow and knee flexures. The arc crosses the flexor crease and burns the two “kissing” skin surfaces causing vast underlying tissue destruction. 2,5

Cutaneous involvement alone may underestimate the extent of underlying tissue damage. 2,5,7

How is an electrical burn diagnosed?

Preceding electrical exposure confirms the diagnosis of an electrical burn.

In an unconscious patient in an appropriate environmental setting:

  • Include electrical injury in the differential diagnosis
  • Activate Advanced Trauma Life Support protocol, safely securing airway, breathing, and circulation
  • Carefully examine all organ systems (see below)
  • Calculate total body surface area (TBSA) of skin burn
  • Monitor neurovascular status of extremities to detect compartment syndrome.

Skin

  • Cutaneous burn

Heart

  • Arrhythmia
  • Cardiac arrest

Respiratory system

  • Respiratory arrest caused by respiratory muscle tetany or central nervous system dysfunction

Vascular*

  • Development of aneurysm
  • Tissue ischaemia

Neurologic*

  • Impairment of consciousness
  • Paralysis and/or paraesthesia (usually transient)
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Spinal cord injury

Musculoskeletal*#

  • Muscle necrosis and compartment syndrome
  • Fractures/dislocation

Kidney

  • Renal failure caused by myoglobinuria if extensive muscle necrosis

Other

  • Cataracts
  • Neuropsychological effects

Note:

  • *Vessels, nerves, and muscles are good conductors and are directly destroyed as electrons passes through them.
  • #Bone and tendons have the highest resistance to electrical current; electrical energy is converted into heat causing thermal injury.

Calculating total body surface area

There are several ways to determine the TBSA.7

  • Rule of nines: the proportion of body surface area in adults is different from that in infants and children.
  • Lund and Browder chart is more accurate than rule of nines in children and infants. The chart also encompasses adults’ body surface area.
  • Use the size of patient’s hand to represent 1% of TBSA.

Electrocardiography

Electrocardiography (ECG) should be conducted in every electrical burn case. Continuous cardiac monitoring is required if there is documented arrhythmia and/or signs of ischaemia, history of loss of consciousness, or suspected high voltage electrical injury.2

Other tests

Complete blood count, electrolytes, blood urea nitrogen, and creatinine are ordered for patients with substantial injuries or if there is risk for conductive electrical injuries (presence of entry and exit wounds or rhythm abnormalities).2

Urinalysis to detect positive presence of blood without red blood cells can identify myoglobinuria due to muscle destruction. 2

Creatinine kinase level should be measured in high voltage injuries because its peak concentration predicts extent of muscle injury, amputation risk, mortality, and length of stay.2

What is the treatment for an electrical burn?

Pre-hospital setting

In the pre-hospital setting, priorities are to:

  • Secure the scene
  • Turn off the power source suspected as the cause of electric burn/injury
  • Evaluate an unconscious patient for possible cardiac arrest and institute cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Provide fluid resuscitation and pain management.

Management of an electrical burn wound

Management of electric burn wounds should include:7

  1. Cleansing: debride loose tissue and blister remnants
  2. Moisturise to promote early epithelisation
  3. Apply broad spectrum antimicrobial agent.

Options include:

  • Silver sulfadiazine cream: broad spectrum, good safety profile, but unable to penetrate eschar
  • Mafenide cream: broad spectrum, can penetrate eschar but may cause metabolic acidosis and application is painful
  • Silver nitrate: broad spectrum, must be applied every 4 hours, stains, and has potential osmolar diluting capacity.

Surgical management

Early decompression procedure is required for contracted and tight compartment of extremity (eg forearm, leg) based on a peripheral neurovascular evaluation.

  • Progressive sensory and motor dysfunction
  • Severe pain
  • Loss of arterial signal on Doppler ultrasound
  • Inadequate early resuscitation

Surgical debridement of unhealthy tissue followed with definitive wound closure is done at day 3 to 5 once the injured tissue is well demarcated.

Excision and grafting may be required for contractures a few weeks following deep partial thickness and full thickness burns.

What is the outcome for an electrical burn wound?

Deep partial-thickness or full-thickness wounds inevitably cause scarring. Other potential long-term complications of electrical wounds include:

  • Neurological deficits: peripheral neuropathy and central nervous system dysfunction: these develop in several weeks to months
  • Cataracts if the eye has been injured
  • Heterotopic ossification and neuromas.

 

Related Information

References

  1. Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary. The Free Dictionary by Farlex [Internet] The Free Burn | Definition of burn by medical dictionary [updated 2012; cited 2015 Sep 7]; [about 4 screens].
  2. Czuczman AD, Zane RD. Electrical injuries: A review for the emergency clinician. EB Medicine. 2009; 11 (10): 1 – 24.
  3. Akoz A, Ozogul B, Avsar U, Cakir Z, Aslan S, Mucahit E, Bayramoglu A. Socio-demographic characteristics of patients with electrical burns admitted to emergency department. JAEM. 2015; 14: 26 –9.
  4. Ghavami Y. Mobayen MR, Vaghardoost R. Electrical burn injury: A five-year survey of 682 patients. Trauma Mon. 2014; 19 (4).
  5. Ten Duis HJ. Acute electrical burns. Semin Neurol. 1995; 382: ABSTRACT. (Cited by: Copper MA, Price TG. Electrical and lightning injuries [Internet].
  6. Jaffe RH. Electropathology: A review of the pathologic changes produced by electric currents. Arch Pathol. 1928; 839 (5). (Cited by: Cited by: Copper MA, Price TG. Electrical and lightning injuries [Internet].
  7. Klein MB. Thermal, chemical, and electrical injuries. In: Thorne CH (editor in chief), Beasley RW, Aston SJ, Bartlett SP, Gurtner GC, Spear SL (editors). Grabb and Smith’s plastic surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007. p. 132-49.
  8. George EN, Schur K, Muller M, Mills S, Brown TL. Management of high voltage electrical injury in children. Burns. 2005; 31 (4): 439 – 44. (Cited by: Czuczman AD, Zane RD. Electrical injuries: A review for the emergency clinician. EB Medicine. 2009; 11 (10): 1 – 24.)
  9. World Health Organization. WHO Surgical Care at the District Hospital [Internet]. Burn management in adults [updated 2004; cited 2015 Sep 09]; [about 7 screens].

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