Have you ever heard of – or perhaps experienced – a “stinger” in sports?
It’s a sharp stinging, stabbing, or burning sensation in a limb after a severe blow or impact.
The official term for that is neurapraxia.
In most cases, it’s a relatively mild form of nerve injury, common among football players and other athletes in collision sports.
The medical definition of neurapraxia is the failure of peripheral nerves to conduct signals, typically due to blunt injury, compression, or blocked blood flow to the affected nerves.
Along with the burning and stinging mentioned above, symptoms can also include muscle weakness.
While neurapraxia is considered the mildest form of peripheral nerve injury, the symptoms may last minutes to a few days or even months, depending on the location and the amount of damage.
In our bodies, signals from the brain and spinal cord – collectively, the central nervous system – are relayed to our organs and muscles via the peripheral nervous system: 43 pairs of nerves that branch off from the central nervous system.
These signals travel along the fibers of the peripheral nerves to deliver a command, almost as though your brain is sending your limbs a text message. The signals get a significant boost from the myelin sheath, a fatty substance that surrounds the nerve and acts as an electrical conductor.
However, while the brain and spinal cord are protected by bone (the skull and vertebral canal, respectively), the peripheral nerves are comparatively vulnerable and easier to damage.
So, when neurapraxia occurs because of a sharp blow, collision, or shock-like injury, the nerve is compressed and the myelin sheath is damaged. That interferes with the signals, which creates the sensation of numbness or burning.
The sheath can often repair itself over time.
Nevertheless, you should contact your doctor. Any instance of nerve damage, however seemingly mild or temporary, shouldn’t be ignored, as it could be related to a more serious spinal injury.
What to Do If You Think You Have Neurapraxia
After the impact or blow, stop whatever you’re doing if you feel a sudden sharp, stinging pain in your neck, arms, or legs. That’ll give you time to see whether the sensation goes away or other symptoms develop.
No matter what, though, you should call your doctor, even if normal sensation returns quickly. Your doctor can use tests, such as an X-ray or MRI scan, to look at the injury and make sure there’s nothing more serious going on, such as spinal stenosis in the cervical region (see below).
Because the stinging or stabbing sensation may be extremely painful in certain cases, diagnosing neurapraxia can be uncomfortable.
Fortunately, a quick and complete recovery often follows a diagnosis of neurapraxia.
What is Cervical Spinal Stenosis?
Cervical spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal cord in your neck. This means you were born with a relatively normal spinal column that became narrower over time. Spinal stenosis puts a good deal of pressure on your spinal cord, resulting in the painful symptoms associated with neurapraxia.
Although many people with spinal stenosis don’t encounter symptoms until their 40s or 50s, people with congenital spinal stenosis may have to face them much sooner.
The wear and tear of sports competition can also cause symptoms to manifest earlier. Case in point: The New York Mets’ David Wright, whose baseball career has been placed in jeopardy since he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis several years ago.
Treatment Options for Neurapraxia
In most cases, neurapraxia can be treated with rest, with no need for surgery.
The main goals of treating neurapraxia are to maintain proper nutrition of the paralyzed muscles, prevent contraction by the antagonists of the paralyzed muscles, and to consistently keep the joints mobile.
You should ice and elevate the affected area, if possible, to reduce swelling. Splints or slings can help, depending on the limb. If there was no muscular or ligament damage, then a few range-of-motion exercises will give the limb the best possible chance to recover as normal sensation returns. Apply heat to the area, too, since that will stimulate blood circulation.
If you continue to feel pain, burning, or numbness, talk to your doctor about other options. Massage, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or acupuncture could be helpful in relieving your symptoms.
Recovery from Neurapraxia
While full recovery from neurapraxia may take only a few days or week, more severe injuries might take months to properly recover. During this time, you may feel weaker and have less range of motion.
Be sure to follow up with your doctor and provide updates on your recovery and symptoms. Being free of symptoms and regaining your pre-injury strength are good signs of recovery. On the flip side, if your symptoms continue, there could be more nerve damage than originally thought. Once the nerve recovers fully, you should be fine – from that injury.
Another case of trauma could lead to a whole new case of neurapraxia.
We’re not saying you should go through life with a helmet and shoulder pads, but just be careful.