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Common Football Injuries: Burners (Neck Injury)

December 7, 2011

Nothing opens up the eyes of an athlete more than a burner. A burner is an injury to the neck that most often occurs in football, but is known to happen to athletes who wrestle, cycle or participate in gymnastics. You’ll see these injuries in martial arts, too.

The cause of the injury occurs in the nerves that give feeling to the arms and hands. This nerve starts in the neck, branches into the brachial plexus, weaving together as they pass under the collar bone and then head down to the shoulder.

How You Get a Burner

The football player will injure this nerve usually by striking another player with his shoulder. That direct blow to the top of the shoulder will drive it down and cause the neck to bend away from the shoulder, stretching the nerves. That stretch, which can even compress the nerves sometimes, will send a viscious bolt of electricity down to the tips of your fingers.

Unfortunately this electrical discharge will cause the motor fibers of the nerve to limit the function of the arm, namely showing up as a weakness in the arm. The athlete will notice it when he tries to lift the arm away from the body or bend it at the elbow or when he grips something. You’ll probably also feel intense tingling sensations in the arm and hand, maybe even a stinging pain. How bad the injury is can vary. The pain may only last for a few minutes, but the weakness could linger longer, up to years. The injury hardly ever causes permanent damage.

The player will usually run to the sidelines after the injury, his arm limp by his side. A team doctor or medical professional will examine the athlete, his cervical spine, looking at the nerve function in the neck and upper back. He’ll test muscle strength and reflexes.

A burner will causes these symptoms in only one arm, so you know that it’s probably not something else. But you can have other injuries, like a fracture or dislocation with a burner. You can even damage the ligaments of the cervical spine. That’s why the team doctor will examine the spine closely, protecting it from further injury.

If the injury is more than the burner, then symptoms will radiate to the other arm and possibly to the legs.

Are Certain Athletes Prone to Burners?

Indeed, because of the narrow space in their necks through which the spinal cord travels, some atheletes may suffer more burners.

You can return back to the game only when the team doctor clears you. He does this by seeing the sensitivity of feeling and strength in the athletes arms and hands, and testing the neck motion. He’s also looking for reflexes to return to normal.

The type of protective gear you’ll see athletes wearing to protect their neck and shoulders from this type of injury are called neck roll, lifter and Cowboy collar. Sometimes an athlete will wear additional shoulder pads, but avoid attaching restraining straps to the helmet. These can lead to more severe injuries. If you do suffer a burner during a game, make sure you have your team doctor examine you throughout.

Post injury symptoms tend to be a stiff neck.

Preventing Burners

Tackling properly is the key to preventing a burner. Never spear or lead with your head. When it comes to your equipment, make sure you are using shoulder pads and a neck roll that are in decent shape. Finally, get involved in an exercise program that helps you develop your range of motion fully, strengthening the shoulder and neck muscles, too.

Dr. Rick Lehman is a distinguished orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, Missouri and an articular cartilage reconstruction pioneer He owns U. S. Sports Medicine in Kirkwood, MO, and LehmanHealth. Learn more about Dr. Rick.

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