Stingers: A Common Injury in Football

As a coach, I have watched many football injuries happen from the sidelines. But one injury that always seems to worry me is a “stinger”—also known as a “burner.”

During a football game last fall, one of our toughest linebackers came sprinting off the field with the look of terror in his eyes, and I immediately started thinking the worst. He couldn’t raise his arm, feel his fingers or even squeeze my hand. Luckily, I’ve dealt with this same scenario in the past and was able to confidently diagnose him with a stinger and return him to play within 10 minutes.

What is a stinger?

A stinger, also called a burner depending on who you ask, is the nickname given to a common nerve injury of the neck and shoulder seen in contact sports, especially football. It almost always occurs during tackling, when the tackler get his shoulder forced one way while his head and neck the other. This stretches the nerve bundle, known as the brachial plexus, which runs from the neck into the shoulder and down the arm, briefly stunning the nerves.

As the nerves try to recover they don’t function properly resulting in the burning, stinging or tingling feeling along with a “dead arm” that won’t move. This can be terrifying to those unaware of what has just occurred. All of a sudden something must be seriously wrong.

What are the symptoms of a stinger?

  • Stinging, tingling or burning sensation down arm into hand.
  • Severe pain in the neck and shoulder.
  • Weakness of arm and shoulder.
  • Unable to lift or move arm.

These are the symptoms of a stinger, but they can also be signs of a more serious injury. So how do we know one from the other?

Well for starters, an athlete that has just experienced a serious neck or shoulder injury typically will not run off the field. They will stay down writhing in pain or worse yet not be moving at all. Also, with more serious injuries, the inability to use the arm and the severity of the pain will increase, or at the very least, remain the same. If someone has a stinger, the pain will begin to subside fairly quickly and the arm will begin functioning as normal.  

When it is safe to return to sports?

It is highly recommended that any athlete suffering from nerve symptoms after receiving a blow to the head and neck injury be evaluated by a healthcare professional (doctor, athletic trainer, EMT) to rule out a more significant injury. If you are ever in doubt about the severity of the injury, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention. However, because this injury does resolve so quickly, the athlete can return to action if:

  • Pain in neck and shoulder is completely gone
  • Numbness and tingling in arm is completely gone
  • Full motion in neck, shoulder and arm
  • Full strength in neck and shoulder

When should I see a doctor?

Fortunately, a stinger is a pretty mild injury as far as injuries go. It usually comes and goes without much issue or lingering effects. However, there are some situations that call for a doctors’ attention. If you begin to experience numbness, tingling or weakness, please contact your nearest doctor.

Written by: Nick Garcia, ATC/R, Certified Athletic Trainer, Sports Medicine Department of Orthopedics, Children’s Hospital Colorado. To find out more about general safety tips, read our archived injury prevention posts, or schedule an appointment at 720-777-6600. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s ColoradoDid you like this blog post? Then consider subscribing to our blog to receive helpful advice, resources and information for young athletes.

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