Competitive cheer involving high-energy acrobatics is the number one sport for girls and it is only growing in popularity. It may come as a surprise that competitive cheerleading has become one of the most dangerous athletic activities for women. It ranks second in catastrophic sport injuries when compared to all sports; only behind American football. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, 65.2 percent of all catastrophic injuries in youth sports are related to cheerleading. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in a 2012 report and policy statement, cheerleading “accounted for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to girl athletes at the high school level and 70.8 percent at the college level” between 1982 and 2009. Further, research has found that there is a higher impact when a cheerleader takes a fall in a gymnastics style stunt than the impact sustained from being tackled by a professional football player.
Catastrophic sport injuries: cheerleading
A catastrophic injury is defined as a severe injury to the spine, spinal cord, or brain that may include fractures to the skull or spine. Some of the more minor cheerleading injuries include sprained wrists, twisted ankles, damaged knees and strained backs. In some cases, the injuries are so severe that they are catastrophic like when a cheerleader misses the waiting arms of a cheer teammate and falls several feet headfirst into the gym floor. This type of fall can result in fractured vertebrae in her neck, long-term pain, nerve damage, loss of memory or even paralysis.
Compared to the 3.6 million girls and women who participate in the sport, the actual number of catastrophic injuries causing permanent brain injury, paralysis or death is relatively small. The catastrophic injuries reported between 1982 and 2009 in the AAP report were caused by 110 closed-head injuries, skull fractures and cervical spine injuries.
What can be done to increase the safety of the sport?
Coaching education and new safety regulations have helped to decrease injuries in other sports and they are needed for cheerleading too. One of the problems is that cheerleading is not considered a sport by many governing bodies so it doesn’t enjoy the same funding and resources to help improve safety. Thankfully, the alarming injury rates in the sport have caused the United States Sports Academy (USSA), the National Cheer Safety Foundation (NCSF) and other sports safety and law experts to work together on projects to educate cheer coaches on how to prevent catastrophic injuries among their athletes. The USSA and the NCSF worked to create an online NCSF Coaching Education Program to integrate science in cheer safety to reduce injury, disability and death from cheer-related accidents. The NCSF has made cheerleader safety a major part of their platform through a push to make cheerleading a varsity sport at the high school and intercollegiate athletics levels. This action would automatically make cheerleading governed by the same safety regulations as other sports, such as gymnastics.
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