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ER or Not: I Electrocuted Myself!

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ER or Not: I Electrocuted Myself!

Oct 16, 2018

Playing novice electrician? Stuck something in an outlet you shouldn’t have? Emergency physician Dr. Troy Madsen explores the potential health risks you may face after experiencing even just a minor electrical shock. And spoiler: You should go to the hospital.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Is it bad enough to go to the emergency room or isn't it? You're listening to "ER or Not?" on The Scope.

Interviewer: It's time for "ER or Not," where you get to play along and decide whether or not something that happened is worth going to the emergency room. We're with Dr. Troy Madsen, Emergency Room Physician at University of Utah Hospital.

ER or Not? Electric shock. Here's the scenario. You're unplugging an extension cord. Maybe you're doing some wiring around the house and you get bit and maybe it lasts for about five seconds, which actually happened to me once. I was unplugging an electrical cord and I couldn't let go of it as soon as the electrical shock started hitting. I looked and I watched myself not being able to get rid of this thing and then eventually, after about five seconds, I was able to release my fingers and throw it down.

Dr. Madsen: That's really scary.

Interviewer: It was scary.

Dr. Madsen: So what did you do?

Interviewer: I think I was 16.

Dr. Madsen: You walked it off?

Interviewer: I was 16. I didn't feel any adverse effects afterward so I didn't do anything. Apparently, it's worked out all right for me. Dr. Madsen: You survived to talk about it.

Narrator: Yeah, but should I have done something?

Dr. Madsen: That's tough.

Narrator: ER or not?

Dr. Madsen: I guess you're right. I think a large majority of us would do exactly what you did. I remember having a similar scenario too when I was a young kid and reaching . . . it was an outlet then touched something and just felt this shock and it was so strong, but I didn't go to the ER. But the reality is you should. You should go the ER.

Interviewer: Even for something real brief or short like that?

Dr. Madsen: For a household shock like that, you should go to the ER.

Interviewer: Okay, and why?

Dr. Madsen: The reason is because when you get that electrical activity . . . and certainly there are things about it that could put you at higher risk. If it's a high-voltage injury, not a household injury, that's another thing entirely, but the issue is that it can affect your heart's rhythm. Now, if it's going to put your heart into a really dangerous rhythm, it's probably going to happen immediately, but it can still do things to your heart's rhythm. The reason to go to the ER is to get an EKG. That's something that can tell us, did this affect your heart? Are we seeing anything there that's concerning that could then make you at higher risk in the next few hours of going into a life-threatening heart rhythm? If the EKG is okay, we might watch you for a couple of hours just to make sure things are okay, but that's what you worry about.

Interviewer: Really? So you would say if somebody gets an electric shock whether it lasts a second, five seconds, there don't appear to be any other symptoms, no burns, none of that sort of stuff, you really should go to the ER?

Dr. Madsen: You should. And we're not talking about static electricity here. We're talking about something like you had. Let's say you're having a shock from an outlet, you're doing some electrical work at home, something like that where it does shock you. Certainly if you're someone who has some medical issues like you've had abnormal heart rhythms in the past, any sort of medical problems, that would put you at higher risk. If you're standing in water at the time that happens, that puts you at higher risk for that current going through your body. If you feel the shock in your right hand and you're touching metal in your left hand, and you feel that shock also in your left hand, that puts you at higher risk as well.

The challenge with it is, I can't tell you again. I'm thinking like someone calling me and saying, "Hey, I just got this shock. A pretty insignificant shock where I could not let go of an extension cord for five seconds because of this." And they say, "Am I going to be fine?" I'll tell them, "You probably are. I'd put the odds at 98% that you're going to be fine, but there's that 2% chance of something serious and the only way we're going to see it is on an EKG."

Interviewer: And I can't do that at urgent care?

Dr. Madsen: They could run an EKG at an urgent care if you wanted to go there. My suspicion is, when you went there they would say go to the ER because they may not feel comfortable just getting an EKG and sending you home. One thing we can do at an ER is put you on a monitor, a heart monitor, just to watch that heart rhythm. The EKG is going to give us a snapshot of your heart. The monitor is something we can watch over, say, 30 minutes to an hour just to make sure there is nothing unusual going on there.

Interviewer: So don't feel bad if I get an electric shock and go to the ER?

Dr. Madsen: Do not feel bad at all because here, we're talking about something potentially very serious. Probably not, but potentially serious.

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updated: October 16, 2018
originally published: April 7, 2016