A Review of Electric Shock Treatment for Snakebites
(Just Say NO...)

insects.questions@gmail.com

Several years ago, a medical missionary wrote to the British medical journal Lancet that an electric shock appeared to have been a successful treatment for a snake-bite. This treatment became popularly advertised for a number of reasons, two being 1) a push from stun-gun manufacturers who believed this would increase sales, and 2) medical missionaries thought that this would be a cheap and effective method of treatment of a not-uncommon problem in third-world countries. Unfortunately, this treatment has not passed a number of laboratory tests. In fact, it can create even greater problems for a victim of venomous snakebite.

Steve Grenard, moderator for the Venom-L listserver, posted a list of problems which could occur as a result of electroshock therapy, and gave me permission to copy them here.

"The following are the potential harmful sequelae of electric shock, especially in the case of a snakebite:

1. Cardiac arrhthymia. The heart may be already be superexcited by the snakebite event so a normally non-lethal DC electric shock could have unfortunate consequences. Remember DC current is used in heart defibrillators and pacemakers.
2. Cauterization of the fang tracks. Low level electric shock is apt to seal the fang tracks, thus preventing the withdrawal of venom via the Sawyer extractor or free flow.
3. Local tissue damage. Snake venoms contain enzymes that cause extensive local tissue damage. Burn damage from electric shock could exacerbate this symptom.
4. Snakebite is extremely painful. Electric shock on top of it will be unbearably painful and could cause shock of the other kind and unconsciousness.
5. Experiments in lab situations and in-vivo on animals indicate that the electric shock produced by a stun gun or DC sparkplug wire, etc. have no chemical effect on venom and even if it did, it is not likely the effect would serve to deactivate it or turn it to H20 or other harmless substances as stun gun mfgs would have you believe.

The amount of heat produced by stun guns and electric wires applied in this manner do not last long enough to have any sustained effect on the potency of the venom."

So what happened to cause the missionary to write the letter? There are a number of possibilities:

  • The snake may not have been venomous. Not all medical missionaries are proficient at snake identification, so this is a good possibility.
  • The snake may have been venomous, but may not have injected venom. Venom injection is voluntary in venomous snakes, and a good number of snakebites in the field are "dry" bites.
  • The natives in the region where the snakebite occurred have a naturally higher resistance to venomous snakebite.*

One visitor (Brian Hiestand) to this site suggested another possibility: "I read several reports about the electroshock therapy for the snake venom, and the analysis seemed to be that only the people able to travel to the electrical source (some hours travel) were treated. However, if they survived the trip in, they were not in bad shape to begin with and thus were more likely to survive with or without electroshock treatment. Thus the entire 'study' population was biased towards survival."

While most herpetologists are aware that this treatment does not work, I have met several individuals who are still under the impression that it does. One missionary board was going to create a videotape showing how to use electric shock treatment, but I don't know if it was actually produced. Should you come across someone who believes that it can successfully treat snakebite, please give them a copy of one of the medical articles below.

*These points were raised in one of the articles below - when I find the file of electric shock articles that I've misplaced, I'll cite it.

For further information, see Steve Grenard's site on the subject.

One Case in Point

This is just too good not to mention. Dart and Gustafson (1991) discuss an Arizona man who was bitten by his pet Great Basin rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis lutosus) near his upper lip (How?). He had been bitten previously 14 times. As he had read about the electric shock treatment in one of the outdoor magazines, he had decided with a neighbor that he would use the treatment the next time he was bitten. When the "accident" occurred, he got next to a car, attached a wire from a spark plug to his lip, and had someone start the engine. He was unconscious with the first electrical charge. The guy was in the hospital for 4 days and required reconstructive surgury on his lip.

Bibliography (history of this treatment, so it includes a few articles supporting it)

Anonymous. 1987. High-voltage shock treatment for snakebite. Postgraduate Medicine 82: 250.

Blackman, J.R., and S. Dillon. 1992. Venomous snakebite: past, present, and future treatment options. Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 5(4): 399-405.

Dart, R.C., D. Linsey, and A. Schulman. 1988. Snakebites and shocks. Annals of Emergency Medicine 17: 184.

Dart, R.C., and R.A. Gustafson. 1991. Failure of electric shock treatment for rattlesnake envenomation. Annals of Emergency Medicine 20: 659-661.

Guderian, R.H., C.D. Mackenzie, and J.F. Williams. 1986. High voltage shock treatment for snakebite. Lancet 2:229.

Herzberg, R. 1987. Shocks for snakebites. Outdoor Life June: 55-57, 110.

Howe, N.R., and J.L. Meisenheimer. 1988. Electric shock does not save snakebitten rats. Annals of Emergency Medicine 17: 254-256.

Johnson, E.K., K.V. Kardong, and S.P. Mackessy. 1987. Electric shocks are ineffective in treatment of lethal effects of rattlesnake envenomation in mice. Toxicon 25: 1347-1349.

Kroegel, C., and K.H. Meyer zum Buschenfelde. 1986. Biological basis for high-voltage-shock treatment for snakebite [letter]. Lancet 2(8519): 1335.

Mueller, L. 1988. A shock cure. Outdoor Life June: 64-65, 110-112.

Mueller, L. 1988. A shocking cure for snakebite. Outdoor Life ?: 45-47, 76-78.

Russell, F.E. 1987. Another warning about electric shock for snakebite [letter]. Postgraduate Medicine 82(5): 32.

Russell, F.E. 1987. A letter on electroshock for snakebite. Vet. Hum. Toxicology 29: 320.

Ryan, A.J. 1987. Don't use electric shock for snakebite [letter]. Postgraduate Medicine 82(2): 42.

Schmutzhard, E. 1986. Electric shocks for snakebite [letter]. Lancet 2(8506): 578.

Stoud, C., H. Amon, T. Wagner, et al. 1989. Effect of electric shock therapy on local tissue reaction to poisonous snake venom injection in rabbits [abstract]. Annals of Emergency Medicine 18: 447.