Should You Be Concerned About a “Stinger”?

You’ve probably heard the term while watching football games, “Oh, it looks like the player just got a stinger.”  Many athletes, particularly those in contact sports, experience stingers, also known as burners. These injuries have a stinging or burning pain that spreads from the shoulder to the hand. Because the pain of a stinger usually goes away quickly, the injured person may not think they need medical attention or even report the injury to a coach. In most cases, the pain only lasts a few seconds or a maximum of a couple of minutes. But stingers can cause further damage if not allowed to heal properly.

What is a Stinger?

When nerves are compressed, the injured person may experience pain from the top to the bottom of an extremity, typically in the shoulder, arm, and hand. The injury occurs when an impact stretches or compresses the nerves in the neck and shoulder. It can happen in several ways but often occurs when the shoulder and head move suddenly in opposite directions, compressing the nerves.

Stingers are generally caused by trauma to the brachial plexus, which is a bundle of nerves in the shoulder, or trauma to a nerve as it comes out of the spine. A stinger frequently causes muscle fatigue and nerve damage.

What is the Anatomy of a Stinger?

The central nervous system is an intricate network of nerve tissues that control the activities of the body. Part of this system is the nerves that come out of each spinal segment from the neck to the lower back. In the neck, these nerves join together to form the brachial plexus. A nerve plexus refers to an area where nerves branch and rejoin. Therefore, a stinger often happens when a blow to the top of the shoulder pushes it down while the head is forced to the other side. The bones or neck muscles put pressure on the nerves and send pain down the extremity. People often report that it feels like an electric shock down the arm, with pain, numbness, and/or weakness. The pain is usually brief, lasting seconds or minutes, but other symptoms include:

  • A tingling or burning sensation in the neck or arm
  • Weakness or numbness lasting for days or weeks
  • Development of muscle spasms or neck pain

Anyone who suffers a stinger and experiences symptoms such as dizziness, loss of sensation in arms or legs, or ongoing pain should seek prompt medical care. Additional injuries may include:

  • A spinal cord injury
  • A concussion
  • An injury to the nerve root
  • A fracture

Treatments for Stingers

Stingers are a frequent injury in athletes, reported in up to 65% of college football players. Research has shown that once a person has sustained a stinger, they are at higher risk of having another. In some cases, stingers can result in permanent nerve damage.

Care begins with removing the injured person from the activity that caused the injury. Treatment usually starts with a thorough medical history and physical exam to diagnose stingers and assess areas of weakness. Burner injuries have been classified on a scale as grades 1, 2, and 3. A grade 1 injury may return to normal within a week or two. However, in a grade 3 injury symptoms can last for a year or longer. Treatment typically includes rest and gentle neck and shoulder range of motion exercises.

Strengthening the neck and shoulder muscles can help prevent future burners. Also, some athletes wear special collars to help reduce the risk of recurring stinger injuries.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, please visit our website or call Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehab at 570-208-2787.