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Electrical Injuries in Emergency Medicine Differential Diagnoses

  • Author: Tracy A Cushing, MD, MPH, FACEP, FAWM; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
Updated: Mar 08, 2016
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Tracy A Cushing, MD, MPH, FACEP, FAWM Assistant Professor and Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Tracy A Cushing, MD, MPH, FACEP, FAWM is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Ronald K Wright, MD, JD Associate Professor (Retired), Department of Pathology, University of Miami School of Medicine; Private Practice, Forensic Pathology

Ronald K Wright, MD, JD is a member of the following medical societies: College of American Pathologists, American Academy of Forensic Sciences, American Medical Association, American Society for Clinical Pathology, National Association of Medical Examiners

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Eric L Legome, MD Chief, Department of Emergency Medicine, Kings County Hospital Center; Professor Clinical, Department of Emergency Medicine, State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine

Eric L Legome, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors, American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Joe Alcock, MD, MS Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Joe Alcock, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP Vice President, Medical Affairs and Global Health, New York Institute of Technology; Professor of Emergency Medicine, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, New York Academy of Medicine, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American Association for Physician Leadership, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Arcing electrical burns through the shoe around the rubber sole. High-voltage (7600 V) alternating current nominal. Note cratering.
Contact electrical burn. This was the ground of a 120-V alternating current nominal circuit. Note vesicle with surrounding erythema. Note thermal and contact electrical burns cannot be distinguished easily.
Contact electrical burns, 120-V alternating current nominal. The right knee was the energized side, and the left was ground. These are contact burns and are difficult to distinguish from thermal burns. Note entrance and exit are not viable concepts in alternating current.
Electrical burns to the hand.
Electrical burns to the foot.
High-voltage electrical burns to the chest.
Superficial electrical burns to the knees (flash/ferning).
Energized site of low-voltage electrical burn in a 50-year-old electrician.
Grounded sites of high-voltage injury on the chest of a 16-year-old boy who climbed up an electric pole.
Energized site of the high-voltage injury depicted in Media File 9 (16-year-old boy who climbed up an electric pole).
Entrance site of a low-voltage injury.
Grounded sites of a low-voltage injury in a 33-year-old male suicide patient.
Grounded site of a low-voltage injury in the same 33-year-old male patient depicted in Media File 12.
Grounded sites of low-voltage injury on the feet.
A histologic picture of an electrical burn showing elongated pyknotic keratinocyte nuclei with vertical streaming and homogenization of the dermal collagen (40X). Courtesy of Elizabeth Satter, MD.
Table. Physiologic Effects of Different Electrical Currents
Effect Current (milliamps)
Tingling sensation/perception1-4
Let-go current – Children3-4
Let-go current - Women6-8
Let-go current – Men7-9
Skeletal muscle tetany16-20
Respiratory muscle paralysis20-50
Ventricular fibrillation50-120
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