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Why Does Electrocution Hurt?

Updated on September 4, 2010

The Path of Least Resistance

I need to describe a bit about the body first. Signals to and from the brain travel down nerves - at least the type of signal I'm talking about. These include commands to move as well as reports of hot/cold, pain, touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

The way nerves work is by conducting small currents of electricity from your brain to wherever on the body - Let's use the hand as an example. If you want to close your hand, a signal is sent from your brain to your hand that causes the muscles to contract and your hand closes. That signal is sent through nerves. Your spinal cord is one big nerve and that's why people that break their neck are often paralyzed - because the signal can no longer be transmitted to close the hand. They often die because the signal from the brain to pump the heart can't be transmitted either and their heart stops beating properly. Nerves are like power cords to and from your brain, which makes them the path of least resistance.

I've heard many times that it isn't the volts that will kill you - it's the amps. Actually, it's a combination of both. The volts describe how hot the electrons are while the amps describes how many electrons there are. Think of it like pebbles rolling down a mountain. The volts tell you how high they are when they start to roll, the amps tells you how many pebbles are rolling. One pebble rolling down Everest isn't going to even hurt you, but an avalanche of pebbles on a small hill can still hurt you badly.

Another common misconception is the idea of a path of least resistance. Electrons would like to travel down a path of least resistance, but will take any path they can. If you grab onto a power line with both hands, most of the electricity will still travel through the line. Only a tiny fraction of that electricity will flow through you. Compared to metal, human flesh is a poor conductor. However, compared to air or rubber, human flesh is a great conductor, and nerves will be the path of least resistance.

When you stick your finger in a light socket, that electricity will travel through you instead, your nerves in particular. That's why when electricity travels through you, your muscles start behaving funny, the contact point of the electricity hurts like hell, and your heart can sometimes stop (or if you're in the ER and your heart has already stopped, they'll use electricity to start it again.).

When a signal is sent to your brain, only a fraction of your nerves are transmitting at once. Think of it like thousands of tiny cords bound together to make a big cord where the big cord is the part that travels from your hand to your brain. Only a fraction of the tiny cords are transmitting at any given moment. That's why there are different levels of pain - the more pain you're feeling, the more nerve endings are transmitting. That's why electricity hurts so bad - it causes a lot of nerve endings to transmit at once.

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    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      8 years ago

      A gentelman decided to write a comment about this post that irked me a bit. He did explain that I was incorrect about the properties of Alternating Current, so I erased that section all together. Turns out I was way off. This gentleman had a lot of great information, but his attitude was less than favorable.

      An excerpt from his response that is useful information: "In the US, household power is 120 Volts RMS (root mean square) nominal. This actually means that the voltage goes from approximately negative 170 Volts to positive 170 Volts in a wave. It is not by any means “all positive”. If it were all positive, the RMS voltage would be much higher than 120 (240 Volt to be precise). There are two reasons that many people use the term 110 Volts for standard household power: 1, The US system used to be nominal 110 Volts but changed to 120 for more consistency with other nations and 2, that is the value used when sizing motor circuits." His name is Cmic on hubpages. Beyond that, I couldn't care more to give a proper citation.

    • profile image

      Peter Enmore 

      8 years ago

      I work for a company that sells resistors and we train our staff on electrical safety. So many people asks us why electrocution hurts, so I'm glad you wrote a hub about it!

    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      8 years ago

      I can't advise one way or the other if you should see the doctor. It really depends on how badly you got shocked. If there is a blister or significant burn, yes. If no, then it could still be dependent on how old you are or if you've got a pacemaker. Pretty much all I can say is it's up to you and to choose based on a play-it-safe policy.

    • profile image

      anonamays? 

      8 years ago

      what if i was unplunging a night light and got shock but im a ok i fell as normal as uasual do i have to see a doctor?

    • profile image

      Anon 

      8 years ago

      Birds sit on high tension wires all the time- nothing happens to them. But if another part of their body comes in contact with any other object (another line, the pillar...), they get toasted. In fact, an arc can jump across air if the bird is a long one but not touching anything else.

    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      8 years ago

      Arko,

      Your body will conduct a little bit of the electricity, but how much is hard to say. Since metal is such a great conductor, most of the electrical energy will travel through the wire. How much decides to travel through you depends a lot on the volts and amps in the wire. Also if you're looking at capacitance of the human body, electricity will flow in and out of the body at the frequency of the alternating current. I'm not sure if the capacitance of a human body would allow a significant amount of electrical energy to shock the body. I'm afraid this vague answer is the best I can do. I can tell you that hanging from a wire is far safer than using your body to connect to the ground or another wire. Being a conductor is the last thing you want to do.

    • profile image

      Arko 

      8 years ago

      great article.it's really informative.can you tell me one thing?what should happen if i hang in the air holding a highly charged wire.my feet are suspended in the air and are not touching the ground.

    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      8 years ago

      I can't say I know how to treat shock trauma. My only advice is to see a doctor for it.

      As for posting email addresses... Post and reply at your own risk. Rickey, if you get inappropriate emails from people who got it from this post, let me know and I'll remove your address.

      As for a scientific reason you're still here Rickey... most electrocutions don't pass as much current through the head as through the rest of the body because the head is not usually a contact point. For a philosophical reason... I can't speculate on that one. It's good that you're still around.

    • profile image

      IgobyKal 

      8 years ago

      I bet so many people read this post because its one of those things that happens to someone or someone that they know and they are looking for help and find your post. My fiancé was shocked at work today trying to unplug a blender and I was trying to find out if there was anything that she need to do to treat it.

    • profile image

      Rickey Chaplain 

      8 years ago

      I read your article, and I liked it, I was Electrocuted by 22,000 voltes and I want to know why I'm still here. I'm suffering with nerve pain thru out my entire body,

      I'm in a wheel chair now, but fighting to walk again. I'm in theropy 3 times a week and three times 3 hours a day. I didn't feel a thing, until I woke up 3 weeks later. if anyone has a commet to ask me I'm on facebook my e-mail address is rickeychaplain@yahoo.com I will be glad to hear from you. Thanks from listening

    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      9 years ago

      Well, Cindy, the human body can take quite a jolt. Even though a small zap can stop the heart, it is quite common that people survive severe electrocution. And the AC in your house is designed to push you away from the outlet and thus minimize the zap you do get hit with.

      And did you ever get even with your sister?

    • profile image

      cindy 

      9 years ago

      I was told to stick a key in a socket when i was 3 by my big sister. So i did it. I only remember up to the point where i stuck it in the socket and nothing after that. I was told that all the lights had started to flicker in the house, but what i really want to know is why didn't i die? Especially since I was a toddler.

    • profile image

      Tim 

      9 years ago

      The definition of electrocution is death by conduction of electricity through the body. If you survive electricity passing through your body, then you have been shocked. However, if you die, then you have been electrocuted.

    • Science Guru profile imageAUTHOR

      Science Guru 

      10 years ago

      I don't know why everyone loves this post. It's gotten literally twice as many views as any other of my posts. That's so baffling to me! I guess everyone likes being zapped a bit.

    • dutch84 profile image

      dutch84 

      10 years ago

      I would imagine electrocutions hurt because YOU'RE BEING ELECTROCUTED!!!

      I mean, if a static shock hurts, imagine what an electrocution would do to you?

      But nevertheless, this is a very informative article. Thanks!

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