Body-jarring 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," painful electrical sensations radiating through one of the arms. These painful injuries affect the nerves in the neck and shoulders, or those in the neck that branch off from the spinal cord, according to the North American Spine Society (NASS).
Although a stinger is usually a spine injury, it is never a spinal cord injury.
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 in one of two ways: A nerve off the spinal cord in the neck is compressed as the head is forced backward and toward that side, or the nerves in the neck and shoulder are over-stretched as the head is forced sideways, away from the shoulder.
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 electrical sensations are radiating down one of your arms. Symptoms rarely last more than a few seconds or minutes.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away, the NASS says. Untreated stingers can get better, but nerve damage and muscle weakness can linger. Another injury is more likely, too. Multiple stingers cause permanent nerve damage and weakness.
Stingers don't affect both arms at the same time, although each arm can be affected with different injuries. If you have pain in both arms at the same time after a neck injury, you may have a spinal cord injury. This requires a much different treatment plan.
The pain and muscle weakness caused by stingers typically are treated with ice, then with anti-inflammatory medication and heat. You also need to rest until symptoms go away. If the pain lasts more than a few weeks, your doctor may order further 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.
Surgery is only considered if the injured nerve is severely compressed by a herniated disc or bone spur and there is severe lasting pain or worsening weakness.
You shouldn't play again until the pain is gone, you have full range of motion in your neck, testing does not show nerve damage or nerve compression, and you have been reconditioned for play. Your playing technique and equipment should be reviewed to see if improvements can protect you from further injury. If you've had a stinger, don't get "burned" again. Strengthening your neck muscles or correcting chronic problems with your posture is the best way to help prevent future injury.
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