You are in the park, playing soccer with friends. You catch the snap and head for the touchdown. At that moment you are hit on your side. You feel a stabbing pain from your neck down your arm. That pain is called a angel.
Stingers, also sometimes called burners, can happen to anyone. But they are most common in people who play contact sports, such as football, hockey, and wrestling. They can also occur if you’ve experienced an incident where your head and neck move quickly in different directions, such as in a car accident.
We spoke with David J Hryvniak, DO, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UVA Health, about stingers and how to treat them.
What is a Stinger?
Orthopedic stingers are an injury that occurs to the nerves around your neck and shoulders. “This is nerve damage that can vary in severity,” says Hryvniak. “Stingers usually resolve on their own, but it’s important to treat these injuries appropriately because 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 from the spinal cord in your neck and shoulder and travel down your arm. These nerves control your arm, shoulder, and hand.
When you are hit or fall in a way that causes your head and neck to move rapidly in different directions, it causes the brachial plexus to stretch. That sudden stretch can damage the nerves in the brachial plexus, leading to a sting.
Stingers got that name because of the sharp pain they cause. The pain may travel from your neck to your arm. Stinger symptoms can feel like:
- An electric shock
- Burning feeling
- Numbness or weakness in the arm (“dead arm”)
- You are unable to lift or move your arm for a short time
Treatment of a stab wound
Fortunately, the pain and numbness of a sting usually pass quickly. And they usually get better on their own. Applying some ice can help reduce the pain.
But in some people, the pain and numbness may linger. If that’s the case, or if you get stung repeatedly, get checked for more serious injuries. “A series of stingers or stingers in both arms is always a cause for concern and requires expert medical examination,” says Hryvniak. “There is some concern about cervical spine involvement in these cases.”
Do you feel the burn of a sting?
If you think you have an orthopedic sting, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Sometimes rest and physical therapy can help heal the injury. But if the injury is more serious, you may need surgery to fix it.
It’s important to take orthopedic stingers seriously because if not treated properly, they can lead to long-term problems. You should allow yourself to fully recover from a sting before returning to sports. Says Hryvniak, “It’s important for an athlete to let this heal and return to full neurological 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 correct safety clothing
- Make sure you stretch properly before playing any sport
- Using proper technique when exercising
“Technique, especially tackling technique, is one of the most important variables to modify the risk of stinger, cervical spine and concussion,” notes Hryvniak.