Electrical injuries in Canadian burn care. Identification of unsolved problems

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1999 Oct 30;888:75-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1999.tb07943.x.


Over the past decade, the Firefighters' Burn Treatment Unit of the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has treated 1399 inpatients suffering from thermal injury. Regional burn care is provided in a 10-bed intensive care unit with 18 plastic surgery reconstructive beds for a large referral region of central and northern Alberta, portions of the Northwest Territories, and neighboring provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Of the total burn inpatients during this period, 74 electrical injuries were treated (5.3% of all admissions): 71 were males (95.9%) and 3 females (4.1%). The mean age of all patients was 33.9 +/- 12.6 years (range 1-67). Compared to our general population of thermally injured patients, those with electrical injuries had smaller injuries [9.9 +/- 12.9% TBSA (range 1-65) versus 15.1 +/- 10.1], shorter length of hospitalization [18.6 +/- 7.3 days (range 1-80) versus 26.2 +/- 0.8], and substantially lower mortality once reaching the hospital (0% versus 4%). Electrical injuries were classified as flash in 30 cases, contact in 42 cases, and lightning in 2 cases; 74.3% of injuries occurred during work-related activities. A total of 118 operative procedures were performed during the acute admission (1.6 procedures per patient), including 19 amputations: 12 in the upper and 7 in the lower extremity. The mean time of amputation was 9.3 +/- 5.3 days after admission. In contact injuries of the upper extremity, 14 patients suffered amputations or neurologic injury that required reconstruction with free tissue transfers and nerve grafts. Long-term functional outcome of these patients using sensory testing, the Jebsen-Taylor hand function test, and wound coverage has revealed that these patients have substantial persistent sensory impairment of their upper extremities postinjury despite reconstruction, although many remain active and functional with acceptable wound coverage. Based on our analysis of electrical injury as it presents to one typical Canadian burn unit, our patients suffer limb loss on a delayed basis, which leads to substantial morbidity. Reconstruction of the upper extremity with microsurgical techniques after profound electrical injury has provided acceptable coverage, but in many instances is associated with poor or marginal sensory recovery limiting reemployment options for patients with upper extremity electrical burns. Further understanding of the cellular biology of delayed tissue loss after electric injury would offer the potential for reduction in amputation rate and improvement in functional outcome and overall morbidity.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Occupational*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Burns, Electric / etiology
  • Burns, Electric / pathology
  • Burns, Electric / surgery*
  • Canada
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Extremities / injuries
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged