A stinger is a sports related injury to the nerves about the neck or shoulder. It is sometimes called a burner or nerve pinch injury, but the term stinger is most descriptive of the symptoms that the athlete experiences including painful electrical sensations radiating through one of the arms. While the stinger is usually a spine injury, it is never a spinal cord injury. The stinger occurs most commonly in contact and collision sports, but is not as catastrophic as a spinal cord injury and does not result in paralysis in the arms and legs. A stinger is often not reported by the athlete to the coaches or the athletic trainers since the symptoms can spontaneously resolve within a short period of time. However, stingers tend to recur and if not properly diagnosed and treated can lead to persistent pain or even arm weakness, which can eventually result in extended lost playing time.
Athletes competing in various sports (most common in football and wrestling), playing specific positions (such as defensive back, linebacker or offensive line) or performing certain athletic maneuvers (such as tackling, blocking or executing a take down maneuver) are at greatest risk of sustaining a stinger. The injury occurs in one of two ways: either one of the nerves 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. The athlete will experience sudden and severe painful, stinging sensations in one of his arms frequently lasting from seconds to minutes, occasionally hours and less frequently days or longer. There is often associated weakness of the muscles in the shoulder and arm that are supplied by the injured nerve. The arm symptoms are usually more severe than neck pain. First time stingers will usually recover quickly even without treatment, but there is a greater risk of recurrent injury if left untreated. Each additional stinger will likely result in continued neurologic impairment including muscle weakness. Stingers do not affect both arms at the same time, although each arm can be affected with different injuries. If both arms are symptomatic at the same time after a neck injury, a spinal cord injury is likely to have occurred which leads to a much different treatment plan.