What Is Post Electric Shock Syndrome?

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Electrical injuries are uncommon, but when they do occur, they can leave long-lasting effects on the body. Post electric shock syndrome is a set of neuropsychological symptoms (those affecting the brain, cognition, and behavior) that persist long after an electrical injury. People develop these problems after an electrical injury, but diagnosis is challenging.

This article discusses the symptoms, complications, and long-term effects of post electric shock syndrome.

Post Electric Shock Syndrome

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What Are Electrical Injuries?

An electrical injury is when the skin or internal organs are damaged after a person comes into contact with an electrical current. Electrical currents can damage the heart, muscles, and nerves, and can cause burns on the skin.

Electrical injuries can range from low-voltage sources, like those in the home, to high-voltage sources, such as lightning. An electrical current greater than or equal to 1,000 volts is considered a high-voltage injury. Most high-voltage injuries occur in the workplace.

The factors that are most important when determining the likelihood of injury include:

  • Amount of voltage: Electrical current greater than or equal to 1,000 volts is associated with more significant injury.
  • Path of electricity traveling through the body: Electricity traveling through the chest, where the heart is located, is more severe than elsewhere in the body.
  • Duration of electrical contact: The longer the connection, the more severe the injury.
  • Type of current (alternating current vs. direct current): Alternating current is more severe because it leads to muscle contractions, leaving a person unable to get away from the electrical current.
  • Wet or dry skin: Wet skin increases conduction and causes more severe injury.

High voltage injuries can also be associated with other traumatic injuries. Often, a blast effect throws a person away from the electrical current.

How Often Do Electrical Injuries Occur?

Electrical injuries are uncommon. There were 2,220 nonfatal electrical injuries involving days off from work in 2020.

Early Effects of Electrical Injuries

The short-term problems that occur after an electrical injury include:

  • Burns
  • Dangerous heart rhythms
  • Tingling sensations
  • Seizures
  • Neurologic problems like weakness and numbness

Most electrical injuries are work-related, low-voltage injuries, due to longer contact time with the source. Most patients evaluated in a hospital with a low-voltage injury go home the same or next day. Very few people require further care in the hospital. If an electrical injury is fatal, it will likely cause death immediately.

Burns

Sometimes burns from an electrical injury may not appear severe on the outside of the body. Still, electricity can burn tissue on the inside of the body.

Burns can occur in these three ways:

  • An actual electrical injury, when the current flows across the body
  • Arc injury, when an electrical current jumps from the source of electricity to another object near a person
  • Flame injury, from the ignition of clothing

Cardiac Problems

Some people can develop heart abnormalities, such as cardiac arrhythmias, after an electrical injury.

Lethal heart problems occur immediately after the event. Other abnormalities detected in the hospital by an electrocardiogram are common in people who have had electricity travel through the chest.

However, these people usually do not develop symptoms and do not require further intervention. They may be sent home with instructions to look for signs of nerve, skin, or muscle damage.

People who sustain electrical injuries typically do not develop life-threatening electrical heart problems later.

Muscle Damage

People with high-voltage electrical injuries are more likely to suffer muscle damage that requires them to stay in the hospital. However, lower-voltage injuries, such as some household injuries from alternating current sources, can lead to muscle damage.

Muscle damage can be pretty severe, because muscles are attached to bones, and bones have the highest conductance capacity.

Complications From Electrical Injuries

The long-term problems associated with electrical injury include:

  • Persistent neurologic problems
  • Psychological changes
  • Cataracts, clouding of the clear lens of the eye (though damage to the eye from an electrical injury does not occur at less than 200 volts)
  • Chronic pain

Some of these long-term complications are difficult to diagnose. No imaging or laboratory tests help link chronic symptoms to a previous electrical injury. Additionally, the long-term symptoms are nonspecific and are common in other disorders.

The severity of the long-term effects is not proportional to the degree of electrical injury. Symptoms may not even begin until more than one to five years after the injury. This makes it difficult for healthcare providers to link specific symptoms to an electrical injury.

Symptoms

Post electric shock syndrome has a number of neuropsychological symptoms that persist long after an electrical injury. The symptoms include:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Difficulty with memory and attention
  • Irritability
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Insomnia
  • Aggressive behavior

Significant electrical injury has also been associated with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People who develop this syndrome can also experience difficulty with:

  • Participating in family activities
  • Enjoying usual hobbies
  • Engaging in social activities
  • Maintaining relationships
  • Returning to work

Similarities to Traumatic Brain Injury

Some research has noted similarities between post electric shock syndrome and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Older research studies estimate that 58%–85% of people with an electrical injury develop subsequent psychiatric problems. 

While it has become more evident that many people suffer long-term psychiatric problems after an electrical injury, post electric shock syndrome does not have a set of diagnostic criteria, and some mental health providers may not even be aware of it as a diagnosis. However, psychiatrists are developing a diagnostic tool that may create more visibility and accuracy in the diagnosis.

Treatment

Without a precise way to diagnose the disease, there is no clear way to treat the neuropsychological problems associated with post electric shock syndrome.

Experts recommend treating specific symptoms and psychological issues with antidepressants and pain medicines. Experts also stress the need for counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) when psychiatric problems do occur.

Summary

Electrical injuries are not common, but they can have long-term effects on the body. Significant electrical injuries usually occur in the workplace, at either high or low voltages.

Immediate concerns after an electric shock include burns, cardiac problems, and muscle damage. However, people can also develop long-term neuropsychological issues with symptoms that ultimately form post electric shock syndrome.

There are no clear diagnostic criteria for this disorder, but experts are hoping to create a way for healthcare providers to understand the disease process.

A Word From Verywell

Fortunately, significant electrical injuries are uncommon, and most injuries are at low voltage. However, significant injuries can occur and lead to lifelong problems. If you have suffered a significant electrical injury and are struggling with symptoms, particularly ones that affect your mood, speak with a healthcare provider about a diagnosis and care.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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