Injuries produced by Electricity

Injuries produced by Exposure to X-Rays and Radium.—In the routine treatment of disease by radiations, injury is sometimes done to the tissues, even when the greatest care is exercised as to dosage and frequency of application. Robert Knox describes the following ill-effects.

Acute dermatitis varying in degree from a slight erythema to deep ulceration or even necrosis of skin. When ulcers form they are extremely painful and slow to heal. When hair-bearing areas are affected, epilation may occur without destroying the hair follicles and the hairs are reproduced, but if the reaction is excessive permanent alopecia may result.

Chronic dermatitis, which results from persistence of the acute form, is most intractable and may assume malignant characters. X-ray warts are a late manifestation of chronic dermatitis and may become malignant.

Among the late manifestations are neuritis, telangiectasis, and a painful and intractable form of ulceration, any of which may come on months or even years after the cessation of exposure. Sterility may be induced in X-ray workers who are imperfectly protected from the effects of the rays.

Electrical burns usually occur in those who are engaged in industrial undertakings where powerful electrical currents are employed.

The lesions—which vary from a slight superficial scorching to complete charring of parts—are most evident at the points of entrance and exit of the current, the intervening tissues apparently escaping injury.

The more superficial degrees of electrical burns differ from those produced by heat in being almost painless, and in healing very slowly, although as a rule they remain dry and aseptic.

The more severe forms are attended with a considerable degree of shock, which is not only more profound, but also lasts much longer than the shock in an ordinary burn of corresponding severity. The parts at the point of entrance of the current are charred to a greater or lesser depth. The eschar is at first dry and crisp, and is surrounded by a zone of pallor. For the first thirty-six to forty-eight hours there is comparatively little suffering, but at the end of that time the parts become exceedingly painful. In a majority of cases, in spite of careful purification, a slow form of moist gangrene sets in, and the slough spreads both in area and in depth, until the muscles and often the large blood vessels and nerves are exposed. A line of demarcation eventually forms, but the sloughs are exceedingly slow to separate, taking from three to five times as long as in an ordinary burn, and during the process of separation there is considerable risk of secondary hæmorrhage from erosion of large vessels.

Treatment.—Electrical burns are treated on the same lines as ordinary burns, by thorough purification and the application of dry dressings, with a view to avoiding the onset of moist gangrene. After granulations have formed, skin-grafting is of value in hastening healing.

Lightning-stroke.—In a large proportion of cases lightning-stroke proves instantly fatal. In non-fatal cases the patient suffers from a profound degree of shock, and there may or may not be any external evidence of injury. In the mildest cases red spots or wheals—closely resembling those of urticaria—may appear on the body, but they usually fade again in the course of twenty-four hours. Sometimes large patches of skin are scorched or stained, the discoloured area showing an arborescent appearance. In other cases the injured skin becomes dry and glazed, resembling parchment. Appearances are occasionally met with corresponding to those of a superficial burn produced by heat. The chief difference from ordinary burns is the extreme slowness with which healing takes place. Localised paralysis of groups of muscles, or even of a whole limb, may follow any degree of lightning-stroke. Treatment is mainly directed towards combating the shock, the surface-lesions being treated on the same lines as ordinary burns.