The 'Burner' a Common Nerve Injury in Contact Sport Athletes
Nov. 26, 1999 (Atlanta) -- A 'burner,' also called a 'stinger,' is a common
nerve injury resulting from trauma to the neck and shoulder, according to an
article published in the Nov. 1 issue of American Family Physician. The
primary symptom is a burning pain that travels down one arm and is often
accompanied by numbness and weakness. This injury is most commonly seen in
athletes participating in contact sports like football, wrestling, and hockey
or in sports where the upper body may suffer collisions or pulls, such as
Symptoms of burners are usually short-lived -- seconds to minutes -- but
severe injuries can take weeks or months to heal. Frequently, burners recur and
sometimes lead to a chronic syndrome.
"Although burners are common injuries, their true incidence is unknown.
This void is largely due to underreporting by athletes," write Geoffrey S.
Kuhlman, MD, and Douglas B. McKeag, MD, in the study. A survey of college
football players found that 65% of players had at least one burner in their
college careers, but 70% of these athletes did not report the injury to anyone.
Kuhlman is director of sports medicine at the Hinsdale Family Practice
Residency in Illinois, and McKeag is professor of family practice and
orthopedics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
A burner usually involves the nerves coming out of the spinal cord and going
into the arm. Sometimes they also affect nerves in the neck. Usually, the
symptoms disappear within minutes, but they may reappear hours or days later.
In some cases, the pain persists for weeks or even months.
If the pain persists for more than three weeks, doctors can use a variety of
tests on the muscles to diagnose the condition, but Kuhlman warns that in
typical cases of burners, tests used to diagnose the injury play a limited
role. Rarely, sophisticated imaging techniques can be used to rule out other
conditions. Some serious conditions like fractures of the neck and injuries to
the spinal cord may mimic burners, according to Kuhlman.
"Athletes can return to contact sports once they have regained full
range of motion and strength," says Kuhlman. He recommends using protective
equipment in those most at risk of developing burners. "A neck roll or a
cowboy collar are the most practical and easily accessible options," he
says. These protective pieces are typically sold in sporting goods stores and
stocked in athletic teams' equipment rooms.
But recommending or requiring every football player, for instance, to wear
equipment to protect from burners would be impractical, according to Kuhlman.
"Players at the skill positions like wide receiver or quarterback generally
desire greater rotational motion of the neck to see the ball, to observe
opponents, and to play their positions. Wearing a neck roll or cowboy collar
will limit some of that rotational motion and feel cumbersome," he tells
WebMD. "The players at positions most at risk for this injury -- namely
those who block and tackle the most -- should consider wearing this type of
equipment, even in the absence of identified risk factors."