What Are Burners & Stingers?

Burners (also called stingers) are injuries to the nerve network that provides feeling and muscle control in the shoulder, arm, forearm, hand, and fingers. The medical name for burners is brachial plexus injuries. They are common sports injuries. Most go away pretty quickly.

What Happens in a Burner?

The brachial plexus nerve network begins with nerve roots at the spinal cord in the neck and reaches to the armpit. Nerves branch out from there and continue down the arm to the forearm, hand, and fingers.

When a strong force increases the angle between the neck and shoulders, the brachial plexus nerves might stretch or tear. The injury may also pull the nerve roots of the brachial plexus from the spinal cord. Damaged nerves conduct sensation poorly and weaken muscle movements.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Burner?

Someone with a burner may complain of:

  • pain or an electric shock shooting down the arm
  • numbness in the arm or fingers
  • clumsiness or weakness in the hand or arm
  • a warm sensation in the affected area

A severe injury may cause paralysis (loss of movement) of the arm and a loss of sensation.

Who Gets Burners?

Football players are most at risk for burners. But they also can happen in teens who participate in:

Burners can also happen in a motor vehicle crash when the head is pushed to one side or something hits the neck and shoulder.

How Are Burners Diagnosed?

A doctor will usually recognize a burner from your symptoms and a physical exam. The doctor may check arm strength, reflexes, and range of motion in the arm.

The doctor may order imaging tests — like X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — if you have:

  • a history of burners
  • neck pain or decreased range of motion in the neck
  • symptoms in both arms
  • weakness lasting more than a few days
  • problems with thinking, speech, or memory

The tests can help doctors see the extent of the injury and rule out a more serious condition, such as a spine fracture.

How Are Burners Treated?

Treatment depends on how severe a burner is. Many mild injuries need no treatment because feeling and muscle control return within a few minutes.

Someone with a lasting burner might need:

  • Ice applied to the affected area. Use an ice bag or a cold compress for 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours for the first couple of days to ease any swelling.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines. Pain relievers (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen) can help ease pain and inflammation in the neck and shoulder.
  • Range of motion exercises. Your doctor may recommend exercises to keep the neck, shoulder, arm, and hand limber and flexible while the nerves heal. These can also help ease muscle spasms.

What Else Should I Know?

Most burners go away on their own. Someone with a more serious injury might work with a physical therapist or trainer to keep the muscles strong during healing.

A burner should heal completely before you return to sports. To make burners less likely if you play contact sports, be sure to:

  • Keep your neck and shoulder muscles as strong and flexible as possible.
  • Gently stretch the neck muscles before any athletic activity.
  • Use protective gear (like a football neck collar or specially designed shoulder pads).
  • Use proper sports technique (never lead with your head during a football game, etc.).
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