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Lightning is unique in that it can inspire so much awe and wonder about the Earth in fractions of a second. Human fascination with lighting is, at least in part, due to the absolute raw power residing within the bolts.

Of course, as a consequence of this power and our fascination with it, humans have become intimately familiar with the effects that lightning can have on the human body. As we try to mitigate the damage caused by these seemingly random atmospheric discharges, myths have begun to take shape around the potential to do harm.

What we will explore here is some of the myths, and the science behind them, of lighting strikes and lightning injuries.

CLASSIFICATION OF MYTHS

Beliefs have grown up about these injuries that I will arbitrarily divide into the following groups:

  1. Occurrence and demographics
  2. Effects of the strike/types of injuries
    a. Positive effects b. Negative effects
  3. Significance of the strike
  4. Prevention/ avoidance

OCCURRENCE AND DEMOGRAPHICS

This picture illustrates the lightning distribution worldwide.

Global frequency and distribution of lightning as observed from space by the Optical Transient Detector

“No one lives to talk about a lightning strike.”

False. Studies of collected literature have found only around a 30% mortality rate. Repeated studies have calculated it slightly differently at 20%. Studies probably overestimate the mortality rate, as case reports will always be biased toward the more severe or interesting cases.

“Nowadays most lightning injuries occur on the golf course. “

False. Indeed, a large number are work-related. These include injuries to postal and construction workers and persons using telephones that have not been properly grounded. Although many incidents also happen on farms, the numbers of farmers injured has recently decreased because farmers now work in larger fields and better-protected vehicles. Injuries during recreation have increased. They occur to joggers, hikers, and campers, as well as golfers. In addition, a significant number of people are injured while participating in team sports.

“Some people can attract lightning.”

False. Some have called themselves “human lightning rods,” claiming that thunderstorms would change course to find them or that they had been struck multiple times.

As an aside: although some may suffer little injury from a single strike, the majority have some type of sequela (a pathological condition resulting from a disease, injury, or other trauma). When one claims to have been hit 20 or more times, the odds of being able to talk about it decrease logarithmically.

But no one “attracts” lightning. The circumstances in which you find yourself may increase you chances of being struck (like working at the top of a radio tower during a storm) but who you are has zero effect of the occurrence of strikes, and it is pretty delusional to claim so. People who have been struck more than once may constantly put themselves in harm’s way. Also, a few anomalous cases of multiple strikes does not a human lightning rod make; it is a mere case of statistics and probabilities.

EFFECTS OF LIGHTNING STRIKE/ELECTRIC SHOCK

Positive

Among the claims of positive effects of lightning strike (and sometimes electrical injury) are the cures for persons who have been blind, deaf, or had serious illnesses. A few years ago there was a very well-publicized case of an elderly gentleman

Even though outwardly damage may be minimal, significant physiological and neurological damage may be present

who was supposedly cured of his blindness and deafness by a lightning strike. Physicians and neuroscientists who were consulted on this knew that these were hysterical complaints suffered as a result of a truck accident many years before but forbade the press to quote them out of respect for the gentleman.

Another positive claim is that lightning can cause “hyper sexuality” because, for one individual, after his lightning injury he could not seem to get enough sex. While there is a neurological injury that can cause hyper sexuality, more commonly lightning and electrical injury causes impotence, as a result of either direct nerve or spinal cord injury or depression.

There is even a claim that a woman in southern Illinois became psychic after suffering a lightning strike while asleep in bed. Reportedly, her powers have been used by police agencies in locating missing persons and solving cases. Of course, ESP would have to have some evidence in reality for this connection to be made in the first place (and it doesn’t). But I’ll remind you not to underestimate the power of humans to overestimate chance occurrences and the sort of things that may give you pause when listening to a “psychic”.

One of the most bizarre myths of the positive power of a lightning strike is the tenet that lightning victims who have resuscitation prolonged for several hours may still successfully recover. This belief seems to be grounded in the old idea of  “suspended animation” the concept that lightning is capable of  shutting off systemic and cerebral metabolism, allowing rescuers a longer period in which to resuscitate the patient. This concept is based upon one solitary paper that showed a slight increase in the delay of resuscitation and subsequent recovery. This single study that relies on less than impressive data should be no reason to propagate a myth like this. Remember, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Negative

Super ouch

Among the myths about negative effects is the “crispy critter” myth. This is the belief that the victim struck by lightning bursts into flames or is reduced to a pile of ashes. In reality, lightning often flashes over the outside of a victim, sometimes blowing off the clothes but leaving few external signs of injury and few, if any, burns.

Two other myths held by the lay public as well as many physicians that are particularly harmful to the lightning survivors are, “If you’re not killed by lightning you will be fine afterwords” and, “If there are no outward signs of lightning injury, the injury can’t be serious.” In the medical literature, it has become apparent that permanent sequelae may and often do occur regardless of superficial damage to the body. In addition, both lightning and electrical victims with significant sequelae often may have no evidence of burns. While the effects of amperage and voltage have been studied in animals, the effect of frequency, radio waves, and body impedance, as well as other effects, have not been elucidated well enough for us to be able to explain the potential harms done by survived lightning strikes.

A myth that is still prevalent today is that the victim of lightning retains the charge and is dangerous to touch, since he is still “electrified.” This idea has led to unnecessary deaths because of delaying resuscitation efforts.

Many patients, particularly those without external signs of injury, have been told, most often by medical professionals, that they have “internal burns” that are the cause of their problems. This is both a misnomer and an oversimplification for the cellular, vascular, biochemical, or other types of damage they may have incurred. I know that I am being pedantic here, but science requires precision!

SIGNIFICANCE

“Lightning is a sign from God.”

Why would it be? Isn’t it more logical to believe that you were just randomly struck by a natural occurrence in nature, than to muddle up the whole process by involving some all-powerful deity? Humans have a psychological tendency to assign agency to things. When something happens to us, we seek an explanation, some logical cause and effect linearity that will satisfy our pattern-finding brain. But the evolved tendency also frequently misleads us, causing us to think that the bump in the night is a spirit with intentions, or that the car accident was universal karma, or that God smote you with lightning. Just because something is relatively statistically improbable does not mean that it does not happen naturally. Nature doesn’t do miracles, and lightning is surely natural.

But civilizations have hard times recognizing this. Ancient Romans saw Jove’s thunderbolts as a sign of condemnation and denied burial rites to those killed by lightning. Andeans hold similar beliefs and may ostracize the victim. In some cultures, medicines are made from stones that are believed to be a result of lightning strike. Roman, Hindu, and Mayan cultures all have myths that mushrooms arise from spots where lightning has hit the ground.

We see agency in everything, even in random, meaningless, wrong place at the wrong time, noise.

PREVENTION /AVOIDANCE

“Wearing a rubber raincoat (substitute sneakers or other forms of clothing here) will decrease my chances of being hit.” Conversely: “Wearing cleated shoes increases my chances of being struck.”

False, and probably false. The first is easy to dispel:  if lightning has burned its way through a mile or more of air (which is a superb insulator), it is hardly logical to believe that a few millimeters of any insulating material will be protective. The second is a subject of contention but I tend to believe that there would be little effect from whatever is on the bottom of your feet. Certainly metal on the bottom of the feet can heat up and cause secondary burns, but it is unlikely to “draw” lightning to the person.

“I am safe in a car because the rubber tires protect me.”

True and False. True because there have been no documented lightning deaths that have occurred in a hard topped metal vehicle with the windows rolled up. However, the composite tires have little, if any, part in this, for the same reasons as those just discussed with regard to insulation. The safety has to do with the fact that electrical current travels along the outside of a conductor (the metal body of the car) and dissipates to the ground through paths that include the tires and the rainwater.

“Wearing metal in my hair increases my chances of being hit.”

Questionable, although opinions exist both ways. Hairpins most likely are safe; metal helmets may not be. Study has shown fairly conclusively with dummies that metal about the head does not increase the likelihood of being hit, unless it projects far above the head, increasing the person’s height, or there is a ridiculously large amount of metal present. Simply put, the amount of metal you would have to put on your head to be significantly more attractive to lightning than your surroundings is something that no sane person would don. You would be trying to get struck at that point.

“Carrying an umbrella increases my risk of being hit.”

True. Increasing your height by any amount increases your chances of being hit by a calculable amount, although a prospective, population-based, double-blind, randomized study has not been done to prove this, nor has the composition (metal versus composite or plastic) of the umbrella or one-iron been studied.

Other dangerous things to avoid: avoid being the highest object anywhere, be it a beach, small open boat, pier, meadow, or ridge. Avoid being under a lightning rod (except when inside a substantial habitable building that is protected) or standing near a metal fence, underground pipes, or other metallic paths that can transmit lightning energy from a nearby strike. Avoid swimming, because lightning energy can be transmitted through the water to you.

“When outdoors, I should stay away from trees.”

Mostly true. Certainly you should stay away from the tallest trees, which are more likely to be hit and side-flash or splash to you. However, one would not want to become the tallest object in an area by standing in a meadow, either. Making the shortest, smallest target of yourself is probably the best answer if caught in the open. If you are in a forested area, it may be wise to pick an area of dense growth of saplings or smaller trees, rather than either a large meadow or tall trees. If on a ridge, get to a lower area.

Seeking shelter in a substantial building when possible is advisable. The sheds on golf courses, unless adequately protected by a lightning mitigation system, are potentially more dangerous because they offer height but little protection and lightning may splash from a hit to the shelter onto the inhabitants.

“When lightning hits the ground nearby, it is ‘grounded ‘ and I am safe. “

Totally and absolutely FALSE. Despite the fact that we call the earth a “ground,” it is very difficult to pump electricity into the ground. Most “earth” is a very good insulator.  When lightning hits the ground, it spreads out along the surface and first few inches of the ground in increasing circles of energy called “ground current.” If it contacts a fence or a water pipe or wire entering a house it can be transmitted for quite a distance and cause injury to persons near these paths. People, being bags of electrolytes, are better transmitters of electrical current than most ground is, and many are injured by ground current effect each year as the lightning energy surges up one leg that is closer to the strike and down the one further away.

“My mother always told me to stay off the telephone (out of the bath tub, away from windows, unplug the appliances, etc.) during a thunderstorm. “

Good advice, if not always practical. Again, the ground current effect of energy transmitted into the structure along wires or pipes may find the person a better conduit to ground. Many injuries occur every year to telephone users inside the home.

“Lightning only occurs with thunderstorms.”

Most people know to seek shelter once the storm clouds roll overhead. Few realize that one of the most dangerous times for a fatal strike is before the storm. Lightning may travel as far as 10 km nearly horizontally from the thunderhead and seem to occur “out of the clear blue sky” or at least when the day is still mostly sunny. The faster the storm is traveling and the more violent it is, the more likely this is to occur. Another time underestimated for its potential danger is the end of a thunderstorm.

“If we could just harness lightning we could use that to power the world for months.”

Unlikely. Most of the energy in a lightning strike is converted to thunder, heat, light, and radio waves.

And last but not least, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”

In reality, the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower get hit thousands of times a year, as do mountain tops and radio-television antennas. If the circumstances facilitating the original lightning strike are still in effect in an area, then the laws of nature will encourage lightning strikes to continue to be more prevalent there. After all, that is the reason that lightning protection systems are required on many public buildings (including hospitals) by building codes.


Article Reference

Lightning Injury Facts

Myths, Miracles, and Mirages/ Mary Ann Cooper, MD/ Adapted from Seminars in Neurology, Volume 15, Number 4, December 1995/ Copyright © 1995


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