Whether you’ve sat too close to a campfire, copped a face full of steam in the kitchen or have ventured back into the sun whilst still sunburnt… experiencing a burning sensation is not ideal! What about when you feel this burning sensation without an obvious reason? If this scenario sounds familiar then don’t worry… I’ll explain some reasons as to WHY you are feeling this sensation and guide you towards WHAT you should do about it.
Let’s start with WHY
When a nerve is irritated somewhere in your body it can elicit a burning sensation. This nerve irritation can be due to the nerve passing close by chemicals such as the histamine and cytokines found in inflammation. It can be due to pressure or pinching via a mechanical source where the nerve is slightly compressed between the body’s hard (bones) or soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia). When the nerve is irritated by these it’s given a fancy physio label called nociceptive pain.
Now the characteristic of this pain doesn’t necessarily have to be a burning sensation. It can also be experienced as a tingling, numbing, electricity-like pain that can shoot down your limbs. Chances are you’ve hit your ‘funny bone’ before and experienced how intense this pain can be. By the way, you’re not technically hitting a bone… you’re hitting a nerve with blunt force. Hence the tingling numbness that shoots towards your wrist. Now an important concept to grasp is that this type of pain rarely refers back up your body, towards your head. This is an important feature of nerve pain.
The burning sensation may also be felt when the nerve is not irritated by an external source (chemicals, pinching, pressure etc). This form of pain is far less common and also has a fancy physio label called neuropathic pain. Neuro = nervous system. Pathic = suffering from a condition. Some medical conditions such as diabetes increase your chances of experiencing this form of pain.
So WHY is your neck the likely culprit?
The neck is a part of your spine that has the most available range of motion in all directions. This makes it a common area for an injury that can spark inflammation. The nerves that leave your neck are then left susceptible to irritation via these chemicals. With all of the movement that we ask our neck to perform we also increase the chances of a nerve being pinched between the hard and soft tissues of the body. Hence nociceptive burning pain from the neck is very common. When we are talking about neuropathic pain, it most frequently affects the C6 and C7 nerve roots. These are the specific parts of the nerve that exit the lower part of your neck (C5 to C6 and C6 to C7 vertebral levels). When these nerve roots are affected it will refer down your arm in a predictable pattern.
So WHAT should you do about it?
Burning pain can be at times incredibly painful and debilitating. It takes you away from the things that you love to do recreationally and socially. Added to this it also hits you financially with days absent from work, lower productivity at work and cost of healthcare. Left untreated, burning pain can become very difficult to treat so it is very important to seek treatment promptly.
If you are experiencing burning pain then it is really important to have a physiotherapist assess you. They will reassure you that there is nothing sinister at play. They are then highly trained to guide you back to 100%.