Long-term Effects of Strike Are Shocking
Lightning suspected of triggering nerve diseases, says new study
FRIDAY, July 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Getting hit by lightning or getting a severe electrical shock can cause the kind of damage seen in degenerative motor neuron conditions such as amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, French neurologists report.
In the most dramatic example, two people developed motor neuron disease after being struck by lightning, says a report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry by neurologists at the Hospital Gui de Chauliac in Montpellier, France. Another four patients developed symptoms after industrial electrical accidents.
"Although rare, electric trauma should be more often considered as a possible cause of motor neuron disease," the neurologists write.
It is rare, but "some of us have seen these cases," says Dr. Marinos Dalakas, chief of the neuromuscular disease section at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke.
"I myself personally [have] seen a patient like this, and I am sure that every neurologist in ALS who sees a large number of patients sees such cases," Dalakas says.
In one case reported in the journal, a 56-year-old man was struck by lightning while mountaineering. The lightning bolt hit his right hand and exited through his left foot. He began to complain of weakness in his right arm and leg, and tests showed nerve damage. But his condition appeared to stabilize after three years.
In another case, a 67-year-old woman diagnosed with ALS, told doctors she had been struck by lightning 18 years earlier. She died 26 months after the onset of the condition.
The other reports were more prosaic -- a severe shock from a door knob that was touching a short circuit in a wall, and severe shocks from electrical cables. In one patient, symptoms of motor neuron disease appeared just 10 days after the shock, but the delay in other patients was months, even years.
"Even if the pathogenic relationship between the electric trauma and motor neuron disease is difficult to ascertain, it is noteworthy that in these cases the disease started at the site of the electrical trauma, and that patients have a mild handicap after several years," the French doctors write.
No one knows the cause of most cases of ALS and other motor neuron diseases, although Dalakas says some experts speculate that an injury could be to blame.
"You cannot prove that without having a comprehensive epidemiological survey," he says. "Years ago, it was said that ALS was more common after injuries, but there was an epidemiological survey, and it was not proven to be the case. ALS just happens to people who are active and those who are not active."
While injuries such as an electrical shock can damage the nervous system, "You have to be extremely cautious about the interpretation" of the French report, Dalakas says.
"Don't write that an electric shock causes ALS," he says.
What To Do
If you're curious about lightning, check NASA's Global Hydrology and Climate Center Lightning Team or the National Lightning Safety Institute.