Cheerleaders tackle increasingly difficult acrobatic stunts and are paying the price with a rising number of injuries, a study says.
Cheerleaders catapult in the air, climb human pyramids and catch their tumbling teammates as they fall to the ground. They also make it to the emergency room.
A study published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics estimates that 208,800 young people aged 5 to 18 were treated at U.S. hospitals for cheerleading-related injures during the 13-year period from 1990 to 2002. Most of the injuries were suffered by 12- to 17-year-olds; nearly 40 percent were leg, ankle and foot injuries.
The number of high school and grade school cheerleaders suffering sprains, strains, fractures, concussions, lacerations and other injuries more than doubled during the said period. A yearly average of more than 16,000 U.S. cheerleaders aged 5-18 go to hospital emergency rooms with an injury, said study author Brenda Shields of Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Most of the injuries were sustained by girls aged 12 to 17, with 8 out of 1,000 cheerleaders in that age group suffering a cheerleading injury that called for a hospital visit. Only cheerleading injuries receiving hospital treatment were included in the study.
The examination of nearly 209,000 cheerleading injuries over the 13-year period suggested the need for "rules and regulations directed at increasing the safety of cheerleading" as well as training for coaches, the report said.
Shields says, "this increase ... is most likely a result of an increase in the difficulty of stunts being attempted by cheerleaders in recent years as cheerleading has evolved from a school-spirit activity into an activity demanding high levels of gymnastics skill and athleticism".
Organized cheerleading debuted in 1898 at a college football game in Minnesota, and the number of participants has risen 18 percent between 1990 and 2002, the report said. Organized competitions between squads make it a year-round activity.
Cheerleading is not considered a sanctioned sport by some state high school athletic associations. As a result, coaches are not always trained, and some schools lack the proper facilities and equipment, said the study's lead author, Brenda Shields, an injury researcher at Columbus Children's Research Institute in Ohio.
Some cheerleaders "practice in hallways on hard surfaces instead of mats," Shields said. "So when they fall off a pyramid or from in the air and they land on hard surfaces, the chances for injury are drastically higher."
The study recommends that coaches get professional safety training and that high schools and cheerleading associations adopt uniform safety procedures and also develop a national database for injuries.
That is something the Memphis, Tennessee-based American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors has been advocating for several years.
The association publishes a safety manual for cheerleaders and offers safety courses for coaches around the country, said the group's executive director, Jim Lord. He said several factors, including the popularity of televised cheerleading competitions, have encouraged more cheerleaders and coaches to mimic difficult tumbling moves before they have the right training.