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The Dreaded "Burner" Injury in Athletes


Burner or stinger injuries are a common nerve-related issue among contact athletes.

Despite a pandemic-caused delay, professional football is now in full swing minus the stadiums being filled with the teams’ passionate fans. As would be the case even during a "normal" season, the player injury reports have begun to roll in, from ankle injuries to ACL tears and plenty in between. However, a quick news search on Google today for the keyword "burner injury" will deliver more than a handful of results for articles detailing accounts of football players suffering from this aptly-named neurological condition. Yet, it isn't one that many people necessarily know about or understand.

Burner or stinger injuries as they are often interchangeably referred to, involve trauma to nerves as they exit the neck or between the neck and shoulder. These nerve injuries are sustained when the affected nerves are stretched or compressed during quick and forceful head, neck, or shoulder movement – a common occurrence in contact sports. Athletes will usually complain of severe, burning, electrical, or radiating pain in one arm or the other. Injuries with the same kinds of symptoms can be caused by other things that are non-contact sport related, including direct blows to the body from an accident, tumors, and general inflammation.

When a burner injury occurs, the brachial plexus is usually involved. The nerves involved in burners or stingers are responsible for sending signals from a person's spine to their shoulders, arms, and hands. The "burner" name for this type of injury comes from the sensation reported by many people as a burning or stinging pain or an electrical "jolt." This jolt is said to feel like a shock that travels from the shoulder where the nerves are impacted, down the arm, and to the hand in some cases. The injury usually also results in arm "weakness."

Though painful and concerning when sustained, burners are typically temporary and quickly go away on their own, in most cases, within seconds to minutes. However, some people who suffer burner injuries may find that the symptoms stay with them for several days or longer. These injuries can cause prolonged limb weakness with one severe episode or if sustained repeatedly.

Comprehensive evaluation of a burner injury by a trained neurologist, sports medicine, and/or spine specialist is the most thorough path to an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, if necessary. When a physician prescribes treatment for burner injuries that haven't involved a tear, it usually includes medication for pain and inflammation, physical therapy exercises aimed at restoring range of motion and improving the impacted areas' overall strength. In some cases, injections assist with improving shoulder girdle mechanics and preventing repeat injuries. When the injury is severe or results in a tear, surgery may be required to correct the problem and prevent further damage or injury.

Of course, one of the things on athletes' and professional football fans' minds is when a player can return to play after sustaining a burner injury. The short answer is – it depends on how severe the damage was and whether it has repeatedly occurred. In a general sense, return-to-play should be allowed only when any associated pain, weakness, or other symptoms are gone, and overall strength and range of motion are fully reestablished.