Put a Stop to Nerve Injuries Called Stingers

Body-slamming moves are part of the game for football players, wrestlers, and others who play contact sports. They're also the most common cause of stingers. A stinger is a burning pain or a feeling like an electrical shock that spreads through one of the arms. These painful injuries affect the nerves in the neck and shoulders. Or they can affect nerves in the neck that branch off from the spinal cord.

Stingers occur when the shoulder and head go in opposite directions, the head is moved quickly to one side, or the area above the collarbone is hit. The injury occurs when a spinal nerve in the neck is squeezed (compressed) as the head is forced backward and the neck is forced toward the affected side. Stingers may also be caused when the head is forced sideways, away from the shoulder. This overstretches the nerves in the neck and shoulder region.

You may feel a sudden burning or stinging pain in your arm or between your neck and shoulder. Your shoulder or arm may be tingly, weak, or numb. It also may feel like an electrical shock is spreading down one of your arms. Symptoms rarely last more than a few seconds or minutes.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider right away. Untreated stingers can get better, but nerve damage and muscle weakness can remain. After you have a stinger, another similar injury is more likely. Multiple stingers cause lasting (permanent) nerve damage and weakness.

Typically, stingers affect only one side of the body. But multiple injuries can affect both sides. Pain that occurs at the same time in both arms after a neck injury may mean there is damage to the spinal cord. These symptoms need further medical evaluation to address the extent of injury.

The pain and muscle weakness caused by stingers typically is treated with ice, then with anti-inflammatory medicine and heat. You also need to rest until symptoms go away. If the pain lasts more than a few weeks, your healthcare provider may order more tests to assess nerve damage. You may need a cervical collar to prevent more nerve irritation, traction to relieve pressure on nerves, or injections of cortisone to reduce inflammation.

You shouldn't play sports again until:

  • Your healthcare provider has evaluated your spine and neck and clears you for activity

  • The pain is gone

  • You have full range of motion in your neck

When playing sports, your technique and equipment should be reviewed to see if improvements can protect you from further injury. Always wear the required safety equipment. And have your coach check that it fits correctly. Strengthening your neck muscles or correcting ongoing (chronic) problems with your posture is the best way to help prevent future injury. If you have any weakness or neck pain, you should not return to sports activities. Ask your provider if physical therapy will help correct your chronic muscle problems.

Online Medical Reviewer: Joseph Campellone MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2023
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