As Cheerleaders Fly High, So Does the Risk of Injury
West Orange, N.J. – As the fall sport season kicks off, parents, coaches and trainers are focusing their attention on the safety of their players, but statistics show that injuries on the sidelines - among cheerleaders - rank almost as high as those that take place on the field.
Cheerleading is the top sport for young female athletes, with more than 500,000 participating in high school programs alone. The sport has changed dramatically from the days of simple pom-poms and megaphones to include strenuous and challenging gymnastic routines. That has, in turn, led to an increase in injuries. In fact, more than 30,000 cheerleaders are treated in emergency rooms each year, a number that has tripled since 1980.
"The number of injuries among youth, high school and collegiate cheerleaders, as well as those participating on competitive squads, continues to grow," said Neil N. Jasey, M.D., Director of Brain Injury Rehabilitation at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, in West Orange, N.J. "We see a wide range of injuries, from strains and sprains to the ankle, knee and wrist to serious neck and back injuries, as well as a concerning number of concussions."
Sprains and strains are the most common types of injuries, affecting about 53% of all cheerleaders, followed by scrapes (abrasions), bruises (contusions) and fractures. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, fast-paced floor routines and physically demanding stunts, including pyramid-building, flips and aerial exercises, account for 42% to 60% of all injuries and 96% of all concussions.
"Cheerleading, like any sport, carries with it the risk of injury. While we cannot prevent injuries, we need to encourage young athletes, along with their parents and coaches, to receive proper training, take the necessary precautions and avoid unnecessary risks," said Dr. Jasey.
Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, a national leader in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, offers the following safety tips to keep cheerleaders in the game:
- Cheerleading requires a tremendous amount of strength and coordination. Participants should begin training well in advance of the season, maintain a healthy diet and get adequate rest.
- Studies indicate that most cheerleading accidents occur during practice. If possible, choose a practice area that has a softer surface or use mats when learning new routines.
- Progress slowly. Take the time to perfect lower-level and less complicated skills before moving on to more difficult ones. Do not attempt a stunt that's beyond your skill level.
- If you are unsure, uncomfortable or even fearful of a particular move, speak with the coach, or cheerleading advisor.
- Always stretch and do warm-up before and after a practice, game or event.
- Wear properly fitted, rubber-soled shoes with adequate cushioning and support.
- If you experience any pain or discomfort when practicing or competing, stop immediately and get appropriate medical attention.
- Unlike physical injuries, such as a sprain or broken bone, the signs of a brain injury – a concussion -- may not present themselves immediately. Initial symptoms may include confusion, disorientation, headache, nausea and extreme fatigue. If a head injury is suspected, the athlete should seek immediate medical attention.
- When dealing with concussion, other symptoms may appear over time, including irritability, difficulty with memory or concentration, and even depression, as well as impaired judgment, behavioral issues and personality changes, which may be signs of "post-concussive syndrome."
- Every athlete should have a pre-season physical that includes a cognitive assessment, such as ImPACT testing. This important tool, which is increasingly being used at both the professional and school-age levels, helps to establish a baseline "point of reference" that can be helpful in diagnosing the extent of any brain injury.
"We often see that players will disregard their symptoms, tough it out and return to their sport too soon in an attempt to keep their competitive edge. However, this can result in serious complications and lasting problems," noted Dr. Jasey. "That’s why cheerleaders, like all other athletes, need to be honest about any problems they may be experiencing and follow the advice of their physicians and coaches about resuming activity."