Neck injuries in contact sports: "burners" and "stingers"

This is not intended as a substitute for professional advice; neck injuries can potentially be extremely serious, and any unfamiliar symptoms should be assessed by a qualified professional. If in any doubt, injury caused by trauma to the neck should be treated as a medical emergency.

A "burner" or "stinger" is a relatively common type of neck injury seen in contact sports such as rugby, wrestling or Mixed Martial Arts. Usually it results from a jolt to the neck, leading to a sudden sharp burning or tingling sensation that shoots down the arm (often as far as the hand). The pain usually subsides fairly quickly, but it may leave behind some numbness or altered sensation. In some cases, there may be some weakness or lack of ability to use the hand. These symptoms are usually temporary, and fade over time.

This type of pain results from a trauma to the nerves that travel from the neck into the arm. There's some debate as to how the injury is usually caused. It can happen due to compression of the nerve where it travels between two vertebrae in the neck, or because of a damaged intervertebral disc. It can also occur because of a sudden stretch on the nerves, for example as the neck is forced to one side after attempting a takedown.

Sometimes an isolated stinger will resolve quickly by itself, but other times it can become a recurring problem. It may also be a sign that there's an underlying problem in the neck that needs to be addressed. Repeated stingers can result in longer term injury to the nerves, so it isn't an injury to ignore.

It is important to wait until the symptoms have fully resolved before continuing with training. If in doubt, see a qualified practitioner with experience of sports injuries for advice (e.g., a doctor, osteopath or physiotherapist). Depending on the severity of the injury, you may be referred to a specialist for scans and further investigation. In other cases, treatment may consist of exercises to strengthen the muscles around the neck, together with hands on techniques such as massage and joint mobilisation to help relieve symptoms where appropriate.

A good strengthening program can help to prevent injury, but some commonly used neck exercises may cause more harm than good. We'll cover the basic dos and don'ts in a future blog.

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