Burners or stingers are terms that refer to injuries of the brachial plexus. This is a collection of nerves that provides sensation and motor function to the arm. In this article, I discuss these injuries. When do they occur? How do doctors diagnose and treat a burner or stinger?

Burners or stingers

Burners and stingers are injuries to the nerves in the shoulder and neck. These injuries often occur in contact and collision sports like football. Burners and stingers usually involve minor stretching of the nerves. They often cause symptoms for just a few minutes. More serious brachial plexus injuries can involve complete nerve injury and loss of function.

Mechanism of injury

A traumatic blow forces the shoulder down. It stretches the neck away from that shoulder. An athlete with a narrower spinal canal in his neck might have a higher risk for these injuries.

Football tackle, risking a burner or stinger

Symptoms of a burner or stinger

Most athletes only have symptoms for a few minutes. He might feel a burning or shock-like pain that shoots down the arm into the hand and fingers. He might notice numbness and tingling. He might feel weak in his hand and fingers.

Diagnosis of a burner or stinger

A physician will examine the player for a head and neck injury. He will examine the neck and test the nerve function of the upper extremities, especially the affected arm. The doctor might obtain cervical spine x-rays. EMG and nerve conduction velocity studies can determine the nerve and muscle function of the upper extremity. An MRI of the brachial plexus is occasionally needed.

Treatment of a burner or stinger

Most burners and stingers resolve uneventfully. The athlete might be better minutes or hours after the injury occurs. An athlete might notice symptoms, though, for days or weeks. Holding the athlete out of sports is necessary until nerve function has normalized. Recurrent injuries might require longer periods away from sports. Physical therapy can help the athlete regain strength and functional ability.

Athletes who suffer even a minor injury with symptoms consistent with a burner or stinger should be examined. Notify the coach, athletic trainer, or team physician. Evaluation of the injury and complete recovery prior to returning to play is crucial.

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