You’re at the park, playing some football with buddies. You catch the snap and head for the touchdown. Just then, you get hit on your side. You feel a shooting pain from your neck down your arm. That pain is called a stinger.
Stingers, also sometimes called burners, can happen to anyone. But they’re most common in people who play contact sports, like football, hockey, and wrestling. They can also happen if you’ve been in an incident that makes your head and neck move in different directions quickly, like a car accident.
We spoke with David J Hryvniak, DO, a physical medicine and rehab specialist at UVA Health, about stingers and how to manage them.
What is a Stinger?
Orthopedic stingers are an injury that happens to the nerves around your neck and shoulders. “This is a nerve injury that can vary in severity,” says Hryvniak. “Stingers are typically self-resolving, but it’s important to treat these injuries appropriately as they can have long-term neurological consequences.”
All the nerves that control your arm pass through the brachial plexus. The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves that branch away from the spinal cord in your neck and shoulder and go down your arm. These nerves control your arm, shoulder, and hand.
When you get hit or fall in a way that makes your head and neck move quickly in different directions, it causes the brachial plexus to stretch. That sudden stretching can damage the nerves in the brachial plexus, leading to a stinger.
Stingers have that name because of the sharp pain they cause. The pain can travel from your neck down your arm. Stinger symptoms might feel like:
- An electric shock
- Burning sensation
- Numbness or weakness in the arm (“dead arm”)
- Unable to lift or move your arm for a short time
Treating a Stinger Injury
Luckily, the pain and numbness from a stinger usually get better quickly. And, they usually get better on their own. Applying some ice can help bring the pain down.
But in some folks, the pain and numbness may linger. If that’s the case, or you get repeated stingers, you should have yourself checked for more serious injuries. “A series of stingers or stingers in both arms are always a cause for concern and would require expert medical evaluation,” Hryvniak says. “There is some concern of cervical spine involvement with these cases.”
Feeling the Burn of a Stinger?
Get yourself checked out by an orthopedic specialist.
If you think you have an orthopedic stinger, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Sometimes, rest and physical therapy can help the injury heal. But if the injury is more serious, you might need surgery to fix it.
It’s important to take orthopedic stingers seriously because if they aren’t treated properly, they can lead to long-term problems. You should let yourself recover completely from a stinger before you get back to playing a sport. Hryvniak says, “It’s important that an athlete allows this to heal and returns to full neurologic function before returning to play.”
How Can I Prevent Stingers?
Preventing orthopedic stingers can be difficult. But you can try to reduce your risk by:
- Wearing the right safety gear
- Making sure to stretch properly before you play any sport
- Using proper technique when you play sports
“Technique, especially tackling technique, is one of the most important variables to modify stinger, cervical spine, and concussion risk,” notes Hryvniak.