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Preventing cheerleader injuries

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 26, 2012 06:25 AM

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Did you know that cheerleading accounts for two thirds of all catastrophic injuries in high school female athletes over the past 25 years?

From my personal experience, I believe it. I'll never forget being tossed in the air at Madison Square Garden as a college cheerleader (an embarrassing number of years ago). We'd practiced the stunt lots of times and I'd landed safely, but in the exuberance of the moment they threw me higher than usual and I lost my bearings, coming down really hard on my heels. Luckily the diagnosis in the Emergency Room that night was just "bone bruises" and nothing more serious, but I was on crutches for a bunch of winter break. 

Stunts like that one, as well as pyramids and other ways that people end up high in the air (often on top of other people) are the cause of half of the cheerleading injuries--and essentially all of the concussions. There have even been injuries that have caused paralysis, brain injury and death. And since cheerleading has become more competitive, daredevil stunts have become more common. Cheerleading isn't just jumping up and down with pom-poms on the sidelines of a game anymore. It's full of complicated athletic stunts now. While the overall rate of injury from cheerleading is low, the rate of bad injuries is high.

A big part of the problem? Cheerleading isn't considered a sport in all states. Which is silly, given the amount of hard work and athleticism it takes to do it consistently and well. But more importantly, being a sport means you're entitled to things like trained coaches (something our informal squad was remarkably lacking in), good practice facilities, access to certified athletic trainers, mandated sports physicals (so we doctors get to weigh in and warn), and a system of keeping track of injuries.

Here's what the AAP recommends to keep cheerleaders as safe as possible:
  • Cheerleading should be designated as a sport in all states, allowing for benefits such as qualified coaches, better access to medical care and injury surveillance.
  • All cheerleaders should have a pre-season physical, and access to qualified strength and conditioning coaches.
  • Cheerleaders should be trained in all spotting techniques and only attempt stunts after demonstrating appropriate skill progression.
  • Pyramid and partner stunts should be performed only on a spring/foam floor or grass/turf. Never perform stunts on hard, wet or uneven surfaces. Pyramids should not be more than two people high.
  • Coaches, parents and athletes should have access to a written emergency plan.
  • Any cheerleader suspected of having a head injury should be removed from practice or competition and not allowed to return until he or she has clearance from a health professional.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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