What Are Burners and Stingers?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on September 30, 2022
4 min read

Burners and stingers are common sports injuries that often occur in contact sports, such as football, hockey, or lacrosse. However, burners and stingers can also sometimes be the result of just going through the activities of daily living. 

Burners/stingers are intense pains that run through the neck and shoulder. The amount of pain you feel and the time that the pain lasts can vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the injury.

Stingers (or, burners) are injuries affecting the network of nerves that run from the top of your spinal cord down through your neck, shoulders, and arms. This is network is called the brachial plexus, so burners and stingers are sometimes called brachial plexus injuries. The brachial plexus is responsible for providing muscle control and sensation to your shoulder, arm, and hand.

The terms stinger injury and burner injury can be used interchangeably. Regardless of what you call them, though, these intense pains occur when the nerves become stretched or compressed after some kind of collision or injury.

Stinger injuries are the result of trauma to the brachial plexus. This type of injury mostly occurs in athletes who play contact sports, particularly football. In fact, it’s reported that 65% of college football players have had burner injuries before.

Some other athletes that are at risk for stinger injuries include:

  • Gymnasts
  • Rugby players
  • Wrestlers
  • Hockey players

This injury normally happens in one of two ways. Either your head is forcefully pulled away from your shoulder so that the nerves stretch out or your head is pushed toward your shoulder, and the nerves get pinched. In football, this kind of injury most often happens when a player’s head is forced to the side during a block or tackle.

Besides contact sports, another risk factor for stingers is spinal stenosis. This is a condition where your spinal canal is smaller than usual, making you more prone to trauma or injury in this area.

Stingers can also be the result of daily activities that lead to accidents. For example, you might get a stinger after falling off of something like a bike or a stepladder. 

Most people only feel pain in one arm, not both. This pain can sometimes last just a few minutes or seconds, but for others, it can linger for hours, days, or longer. It’s not very common, but in severe cases, the pain can last for weeks or months. Just like the names suggest, people with stinger injuries feel:

  • A feeling of stinging, burning, or electric shock
  • Numbness or weakness in the affected arm
  • A warm sensation in the arm

When the injury occurs, a person tends to hold their arm limply at their side or try shaking it to make the burning and stinging sensation go away. The feeling is described as being similar to your arm falling asleep. The pain starts in the neck, runs down the shoulder, and travels through the arm into the hand. Neck spasms sometimes follow these injuries.

If, however, you feel pain over the bones in your neck, pain that shoots down both arms, or pain that travels through your legs, know that these may not be symptoms of stingers and burners. If you feel these symptoms after an injury, you should seek out care from a doctor, as these could be signs of a spinal cord injury.

To diagnose a stinger, your doctor will ask you for details about how the injury happened. They will also ask you about your symptoms and tell you to describe the feeling in your arm or shoulder. They will usually perform a physical examination to determine the severity of your injury. Imaging tests like nerve studies, X-rays, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans typically aren’t necessary for diagnosing stingers.

Your doctor may order imaging or perform a more thorough examination if you have stingers that keep coming back since this could be a sign of something else. Imaging could also be necessary if you tell your doctor that you have any of these symptoms along with stingers:

  • Neck pain
  • Arm weakness that lasts for days
  • Pain in both arms

The main treatment for stingers is to rest until your symptoms go away completely and you’ve recovered muscle strength in your arm. During the two days following your injury, you should follow the PRICE method:

  • Protect the injured area
  • Rest your arm and shoulder
  • Ice your neck and shoulders for pain relief and to control muscle spasms
  • Compress if there is swelling; use an elastic bandage wrap
  • Elevate to decrease swelling

During the hours or days that you feel pain, it’s really important to stop doing sports, get some rest, and ice the injury. Apply ice for 20 minutes three or four times a day for up to three days after the stinger injury occurs. If you’re in a lot of pain, you can take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), like ibuprofen.

Most stingers go away on their own within a day or two, but you shouldn’t go back to sports if your doctor has not approved of that or if you’re still experiencing any stinger injury symptoms. If your symptoms last longer than a few days, though, you can consider working with an athletic trainer to recover your strength and range of motion.

In the days following your injury, once your symptoms have gone away, you can try some activities to work on your cardiovascular fitness while still allowing your neck and shoulder to rest. Try going out for a walk or riding an exercise bike while limiting your shoulder movement.

To prevent further stinger injuries, you can wear protective neck rolls or shoulder pads to protect the area in case you get hit again. If you play football, it’s important to learn proper tackling techniques to lower your chances of getting injured.