Burners and stingers are intensely painful injuries to the nerve supply of the upper arm.
Named for the type of pain they cause — burning or stinging that spreads from the neck or shoulder down to the hand — these injuries can feel like an electric shock to the arm. Other symptoms include warmth and numbness in the arm, muscle weakness and trouble lifting or bending the arm and with gripping.
In most cases of burners and stingers, the condition is temporary and lasts for just a few seconds or minutes. For 5 to 10 percent of those affected, however, the condition can persist for several hours or days at a time.
Causes of Burners and Stingers
The nerves that carry signals from the brain to the muscles in the arm join together at the shoulder in a bundle or cord called the brachial plexus.
The nerve supply responsible for feeling and movement in the arm runs through the brachial plexus. An injury to this cord results in stingers and burners. Often this condition may be the result of the head being forcefully pushed downward and to the side.
Athletes who participate in contact sports — especially football players — are at the greatest risk for suffering this type of injury. In fact, as many as 70 percent of college players experience the nerve condition at some point during their four-year careers. These injuries also commonly occur in other sports and athletic activities, including wrestling, martial arts and hockey.
People who have spinal stenosis, an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal, are more susceptible to stingers and burners and may suffer recurrent injuries.
Burners and Stingers Diagnosis
Diagnosing this condition is generally simple.
The physician takes a medical history, discusses with you how the injury occurred and performs a physical examination to determine the scope of pain and other symptoms. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, an MRI or nerve studies are usually not needed for diagnosis. However, they may be ordered if the patient has symptoms in both arms or if neck pain and weakness lasts for several days.
Additional testing also may be recommended if the patient has a history of recurrent stingers and burners.
Treatments for Burners and Stingers
Treatment typically involves avoiding sports activity until pain and other symptoms are gone, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
Stingers and burners get better on their own, so no additional measures are usually needed. With long-lasting injuries, however, athletes may need to work with a physical therapist or trainer to restore strength and range of motion in the affected arm. Patients with recurrent injuries may be advised to wear a special neck brace or elevated shoulder pads during athletic activities.