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).
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 compressed as the head accelerates backward and the neck is forced toward the affected side. Stingers may also be caused when the head accelerates sideways, away from the shoulder, which 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 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. After you have a stinger, another similar injury is more likely. Multiple stingers cause permanent nerve damage and weakness.
Typically, stingers affect only one side of the body, although multiple injuries can affect both sides. Pain that occurs simultaneously in both arms after a neck injury may reflect 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 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 disk 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
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.