iPod Helped Lightning Jolt Jogger

Ear buds conducted bolt into his head, doctors say

WEDNESDAY, July 11, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- It wasn't playing his swan song, but the iPod a Canadian runner wore during a thunderstorm may have worsened his lightning-related injuries, physicians say.

The 37-year-old man was brought to a Vancouver hospital with burns, blown-out eardrums and a fractured lower jaw after lightning hit a nearby tree and hurled him eight feet into the air, according to eyewitness reports.

The burns along the man's chest and neck leading to his ear injuries also corresponded "to the positions of his [iPod] earphones at the time of the lightning strike," his physicians said.

They published their case report, "Thunderstorms and iPods -- Not a Good Idea," in the July 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The iPod itself was strapped to his chest and that was where he had pretty significant burns," noted co-author Dr. Eric Heffernan, a radiology fellow at Vancouver General Hospital. He believes that the lightning's electrical charge "tracked up along the earplugs, which seemed to conduct it into and through his head -- it was the muscle contraction caused by the electrical current that caused all the fractures in his mandible [lower jaw]."

The man survived his ordeal, and doctors are repairing the damage to both his hearing and jawbone.

To Heffernan, the incident, while rare, brings a clear lesson: "I certainly wouldn't go jogging in a thunderstorm, but if I did, I wouldn't wear anything with earplugs," he said.

The Vancouver report echoes a similar, well-publicized incident in June 2006, when a 15-year-old girl in London suffered lingering physical, auditory and mental disabilities after being struck by lightning while talking on her cell phone. Reporting in the British Medical Journal, her doctors blamed much of the girl's injuries on the close proximity of the metal phone.

And yet one expert said that, in other cases, portable devices such as iPods and cell phones may turn out to be helpful, not harmful, when lightning strikes.

"First of all, wearing one is not going to increase your chances of getting struck," said Martin Uman, director of the Lightning Research Center at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. He also pointed out that half of people who are struck by lightning will suffer eardrum damage, "regardless of whatever they are wearing."

And while metal can, in some cases, conduct electricity into the body, it can also do the opposite. Human skin is a natural electricity-repellant, Uman explained, and "the other argument is that if you have metal on the outside of your body, it increases the chances that lightning will flow on the outside of your body, rather than the inside, which is obviously preferable."

The bottom line, according to Uman, is that a lightning strike's effect on any one person is as unpredictable as the phenomenon itself.

"I even know a case of a guy who was [struck while] carrying an umbrella -- which everyone thinks is very bad," Uman said. "But I think it also saved his life, because the lightning went down the umbrella and then went off his elbow into his hip, so it burned the bottom half of his body and didn't do anything to the top half."

Still, the Florida expert agreed that it's probably not a great idea to leave ear buds in your ears during a storm. "It's a metal wire in your ear," he reasoned.

Lightning remains the second-leading weather-related source of fatalities in the United States, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. U.S. National Weather Service data notes that 400 Americans are struck, and approximately 67 are killed each year by lightning -- more deaths than are caused by hurricanes or tornadoes. Only floods are more deadly. Almost three-quarter of people who survive a lightning strike suffer severe complications and disabilities.

The experts' advice: Get inside during thunderstorms and avoid taking showers, washing dishes or using telephones or electrical appliances, since electricity can travel through plumbing and wiring. If you find yourself outside in a storm, do not seek cover under trees, because humans are better conductors of electricity than trees.

According to Uman, another good precaution during thunderstorms is to "get into a metal car and roll up the windows."

Uman, who is also a jogger, said he has his own method of tricking Mother Nature during storms.

"I jog, but I jog underneath power lines," he said. In the event of lightning, "those power lines are going to get hit, not me."

More information

There's more on staying protected during thunderstorms at the U.S. National Lightning Safety Institute.

SOURCES: Martin Uman, Ph.D., professor, department of electrical and computer engineering, and director, Lightning Research Center, University of Florida, Gainesville; Eric Heffernan, M.B., radiology fellow, Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada; July 12, 2007, New England Journal of Medicine
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