As a football player, James saw plenty of his teammates get an injury that coaches called a "burner" or "stinger." But he'd never had a stinger himself until a game during his junior year. He made a tackle on a play, and his helmet struck the other player awkwardly, pushing his head and shoulder in opposite directions.
The pain in his shoulder and neck was very intense, and his arm felt numb. James came out of the game and took a seat on the bench while one of his coaches asked him about the injury. Fortunately, the pain went away and feeling returned to his arm in a few minutes.
What is a Burner or Stinger?
A burner — also known as a stinger — is an injury to the nerves of the upper arm. Burners usually happen in the neck or shoulder. This kind of injury takes its name from the burning or stinging pain that runs down a person's arm from shoulder to hand.
The nerves of your arm branch out from the spinal cord near the base of your neck. They come together in your upper shoulder in a bundle called the brachial plexus. When the brachial plexus is stretched, pinched, or bruised, it can result in a burner. The pain can be quite intense and may feel like an electric shock or lightning bolt down your arm. Most burners are temporary, and the symptoms usually disappear quickly.
What are the Signs of a Burner?
Usually people feel a burner in only one arm, and it goes away after a minute or two. In rare cases, the symptoms may last hours, days, or longer.
Pain or numbness in both arms, can be a sign of a more serious problem. Call your doctor if you notice burner or stinger-like pain in both arms.
Some common signs of a burner are:
- a burning, stinging, or electric shock sensation between the neck and shoulder
- a burning or stinging feeling in the arm, hand, or fingers
- numbness, weakness, or a tingling feeling in the shoulder or arm
- a warm sensation in the affected area
How Do You Know if it's Serious?
Chances are you won't need to see a doctor for a burner or stinger since it will go away quickly. But call your doctor's office if:
- burning, stinging, numbness, or tingling last for longer than 5 minutes
- symptoms keep going away, then come back over a couple of days
- you have symptoms in both arms
The doctor will ask you questions about what you're feeling and how the injury happened. He or she will also examine you for pain, tenderness, and arm strength as well as check your reflexes and the range of motion in your arm.
Your doctor will probably order imaging tests if you have any of the following:
- a history of recurring burners
- neck pain
- symptoms in both arms
- weakness lasting more than a few days
Imaging tests like X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can help doctors see the extent of the injury and rule out a more serious condition, such as a spine fracture.
What Causes a Burner?
Injuries to the brachial plexus can happen when a person's head is pushed forcefully down and toward the opposite shoulder. This bends the neck and pinches or stretches the nerves in the neck and shoulder. A sudden movement of the head to the side, as in a whiplash-type injury, can cause nerves to be pinched as well.
Burners also can occur when the brachial plexus nerves are bruised. Bruising can happen when pressure on the head or the area above the collarbone causes the nerves to compress against a bone.
Playing contact sports, particularly football and wrestling, can raise a person's risk for getting a burner. These sports increase the chances that you will fall on your head, as you might in a football tackle or wrestling takedown. The head, neck, and shoulder impacts that go with playing football make it the athletic activity that causes the most burners and stingers.
How Can You Prevent a Burner?
It's not really possible to prevent all burners, but you can do some things to make them less likely if you play contact sports:
- Keep the muscles in your neck and shoulders as strong and flexible as possible. This will help you withstand the force of an impact to this area.
- Gently stretch your neck muscles before any athletic activity.
- Use protective gear. Equipment like a football neck collar or specially designed shoulder pads can be especially helpful if you've had a burner in the past.
- Learn and use proper sports technique. For example, never lead with your helmet when you make a play during a football game.
- Take your time returning to action after you've had a burner. If you feel any weakness, tingling, or neck pain, avoid participating in contact sports.
How Should You Treat a Burner?
The first thing you should do to treat a burner is remove yourself from the activity that caused the injury in the first place. In most cases, your nerves will recover on their own in a matter of minutes.
Some burners will last longer and require further treatment:
- Apply ice to the affected area. Use ice or a cold compress for 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours for the first couple of days following the injury to reduce any swelling.
- Take anti-inflammatory medications. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation in the neck and shoulder.
- Maintain your range of motion while you recover. Do exercises designed to keep your neck, shoulder, arm, and hand limber and flexible while you wait for your nerves to heal themselves.
Burners will get better with time, but in more serious cases, you may have to work with a physical therapist or trainer to keep your muscles strong and mobile while you heal.
And as with any injury, make sure you're completely healed before you start playing sports again. If you don't, you'll increase your chances of another burner or stinger.
Reviewed by: Kathleen B. O'Brien, MD
Date reviewed: March 2011