“Burners” or “stingers”are a nerve injury one commonly experiences in contact sports such as hockey and football. 70% of college football players will experience a burner in their 4 year career. 1 These are injuries to the nerves that result from a hit to or a fall on the head, shoulder, or neck. Common symptoms are burning and stinging in the neck and arm, and some people may experience weakness, tingling, or numbness.
Athletes will often shrug burners off, but you should let someone on the medical team know about these neurological symptoms – nerve injuries should not be ignored. Other injuries can also result from the same trauma. Weakness in the shoulder can persist, even after your symptoms go away. A weak shoulder can make an athlete prone to another burner or other injury.
In spite of how serious your injury is, your physiotherapist can recommend specialized neck and shoulder rehab exercises that help you maintain and regain muscle strength. The result is better performance and fewer injuries.
Your best plan is to prevent a burner from occurring. You can accomplish this by improving your muscle strengthening program, good protective equipment, and coaching for adequate blocking or tackling technique. Poor muscle balance results in bad posture, which can make one susceptible to nerve injuries. Good posture, with the shoulders back and chest up keeps nerve pathways clear.
Exercises to help your posture include neck stretches and pectoral muscle stretches and strengthening the mid and upper back, shoulders, scapular stabilizers, and rotator cuff muscles. Strengthening exercises include shrugs, crossovers for serratus anterior and pecs. Start out slow with light weights on machines or light free weights.
Push-ups with an extra push can be added to this group of exercises without any equipment. Do a traditional pushup, add an extra push up by pulling your shoulderblades forward on your ribcage. Scapular retractions are also a very effective for assisting posture: Try to squeeze your scapulae together by moving your elbows toward each other behind your back.
Neck rolls and shoulder pads are designed to prevent extreme neck extension or side flexion; however, they need to fit properly. Equipment attached to the chest should be firmly fixed. Pads and equipment should be appropriate for your weight and height. Coaches may have additional tips for fitting equipment. If burners are a recurring issue, consider putting lifts under your shoulder pads or wearing a cowboy collar or other device that limits neck motion.
In players who sustain repeated burners, poor blocking or tackling technique is often responsible. Ask a coach to observe your technique changes.
Remember, this information is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have concerns about your health, see your family physician or physical therapist.
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo—Burners and Stingers 2014. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00027.