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Medical Aspects of Lightning

What are the Medical Symptoms?

Lightning is primarily an injury to the nervous system, often with brain injury and nerve injury. Serious burns seldom occur. People who do not suffer cardiac arrest at the time of the incident may experience lesser symptoms, which often clear over a few days:

  • Muscle soreness
  • Headache, nausea, stomach upset and other post-concussion types of symptoms
  • Mild confusion, memory slowness or mental clouding
  • Dizziness, balance problems

Longer Term Problems

Most survivors experience only some of the symptoms below:

  • Problems coding new information and accessing old information
  • Problems multitasking
  • Slower reaction time
  • Distractibility
  • Irritability and personality change
  • Inattentiveness or forgetfulness
  • Headaches which do not resolve with usual OTC meds
  • Chronic pain from nerve injury
  • Ringing in the ears and dizziness or balance problems
  • Difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively at first and later only two or three hours at a time

Delayed Symptoms

  • Personality changes/self-isolation
  • Irritability and embarrassment because they can't remember people, job responsibilities and key information
  • Difficulty carrying on a conversation
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain and headaches

Friends, family and co-workers who see the same external person may not understand why the survivor is so different. Friends may stop coming by or asking them to participate in activities or survivors may self-isolate out of embarrassment or irritability. As with other disabilities, families who are not committed to each other are more likely to break up.

What Medical Tests Are Available?

There are two kinds of medical tests:

  • Anatomic tests take an x-ray, CT scan and MRIs or blood count measurement. These tests will often come back "normal" for lightning survivors because, similar to concussions, the injury is in how the brain works, not in what it looks like on a ‘picture’ kind of test.
  • Functional tests show how something is working so that it may be more useful to have neuropsychological testing for brain injuries. Neuropsychological testing is expensive but may be useful for those who need to document learning or processing disabilities for school or work.

Where Can Survivors Get Help?

The Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors, International (LSESSI), is a support group formed in 1989 by a lightning survivor. LSESSI has helped hundreds of survivors, families, physicians and other professionals by:

  • Providing print and related materials
  • Supporting family and friends of survivors
  • Connecting survivors with others in their area
  • Organizing an annual meeting where survivors and their families can come together for support and information.

Phone: 910-346-4708,
Adddress: P.O. Box 1156, Jacksonville, NC 28541-1156.

What are the Four Steps to Recovery?

The four most important factors in overcoming disability from lightning injury, or from any illness or major injury for that matter, are:

  1. Having a supportive family/friends network.
  2. Becoming your own advocate and learning as much as you can about this disability or having a family member do this for the survivor.
  3. Finding a physician willing to listen, read, learn and work with the survivor and their family. There is no ‘specific’ treatment for lightning injuries. Care of the brain injury and chronic pain problems is similar to that for concussion and nerve injury from other causes.
  4. Having a sense of humor because not all of this will go away. Laughter is a great stress reliever for everyone.

Learn more at the MedScape victims lightning page

This factsheet courtesy Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Emergency Medicine and Bioengineering University of Illinois at Chicago