If you play contact sports, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a stinger. Also known as a burner, a stinger is the shock a person feels along their arm when they incur nerve damage. Usually, stingers only last a few seconds and the athlete quickly resumes play. However, people who suffer stingers are at greater risk of getting worse ones in the future, and neck injuries may result in additional damage that is not immediately apparent. As providers of non-surgical therapy for sports injuries, chiropractors are well-suited to assist athletes recovering from neck and shoulder trauma, but we want our patients to understand why they should have their injuries examined and what can be done to help them.
Nerves of the Neck and Shoulder
The nerves leading to our arms emerge from the spinal cord in the back of the neck. They bundle together in the shoulder to form a structure called the brachial plexus before dividing again and continuing into the arm and hand. A stinger could result from the nerves being stretched when a person’s head is pushed too far backward or to the side, or from a direct blow to the brachial plexus. Injuries to the neck resulting in ruptured spinal discs, joint displacements, or swollen tissues could also put pressure on the nerve roots.
Stingers get their name from the electric discharge triggered by the injury. After experiencing a burst of pain down their arm, a patient may find they have difficulty moving it. They may also experience a prolonged burning sensation and try to shake the feeling of pins and needles out of their arm, or hold it close to their body. Although damage to the nerve is not usually permanent, it may be recurring, despite the initial shock only lasting a few seconds or minutes.
Most stingers occur in football players, although they are not uncommon in rugby, lacrosse, and hockey players, wrestlers, and gymnasts. They can also happen to people during motor vehicle crashes or to people who fall off horses. Some people are at greater risk for stingers due to having naturally narrow spinal canals. Stingers can also occur due to the shoulder being pushed down too far, so a person may be at greater risk if they have not built up their shoulder muscles or if they have been weakened by a previous injury. For this reason, people who have suffered a stinger-inducing blow are likely to suffer a second one that will be worse if they don’t take time to recover.
Athletes should not return to play while they are experiencing pain or difficulty moving. In the immediate aftermath of a stinger, they should employ rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) protocol. Afterward, they should be examined for potential fractures or spinal cord injuries. Image tests and physical examinations may be advised when a patient is in severe pain or has recurring injuries.
Physical therapy is recommended for improving the neck and shoulder flexibility as well as the shoulder’s strength. Chiropractors can also advise patients on postures that will put less pressure on the nerve roots in their necks and perform adjustments when there is reason to suspect a compression. Most chiropractic offices also provide drug-free anti-inflammatory therapies, such as the use of ultrasound and electric muscle stimulation. Athletes who have recurring injuries may be advised to play while wearing specialized padding, but most people fully recover in a short amount of time. To reduce their risk of stingers in the future, athletes should work to ensure their neck and shoulder muscles remain strong and that their necks and heads are adequately protected.
By Roger Barnick 7-6-2021