What are electrical burns?
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 electrical burns?
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
- Contact burn at entry site (eg hands, skull)
- 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 necrosis2
- 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 are electrical burns diagnosed?
Preceding electrical exposure confirms the diagnosis.
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
- Cutaneous burn
- Cardiac arrest
- Respiratory arrest caused by respiratory muscle tetany or central nervous system dysfunction
- Development of aneurysm
- Tissue ischaemia
- Impairment of consciousness
- Paralysis and/or paraesthesia (usually transient)
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Spinal cord injury
- Muscle necrosis and compartment syndrome
- Renal failure caused by myoglobinuria if extensive muscle necrosis
- Neuropsychological effects
- *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: 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 (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
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 electrical burns?
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 electrical burn wounds
Management of electric burn wounds should include:7
- Cleansing: debride loose tissue and blister remnants
- Moisturise to promote early epithelisation
- Apply broad spectrum antimicrobial agent
- 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.
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 electrical burn wounds?
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