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The Hidden Dangers of Cheerleading

Decades ago, cheerleaders led crowds at sporting events with pom-poms, clapping and toe kicks. Those days are gone. Today, cheerleading is a competitive, physically demanding activity that takes place year-round. Complex stunts, pyramid building and athletes tossed high in the air have taken the place of the splits, and the injuries show it.

In fact, cheerleading accounts for more than 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries suffered by female high school athletes during the past 25 years. The catastrophic injuries from the sport may cause permanent brain injuries, paralysis or death.

$2 Million Settlement After Fall At Cheerleading Class

In one California case, a 12-year-old girl sustained severe and permanent injuries while attending a beginning cheerleading class. During an unsupervised cheerleading stunt, a lawsuit later claimed, the girl did not have enough spotters to support her. She was lifted by her ankles, lost her balance and fell backward over the shoulders of a spotter.

The girl suffered subdural hemorrhage and developed spastic quadriplegia, which requires her to use a wheelchair. The cheerleading organization agreed to a $2 million settlement for the child’s injuries. A hospital that initially misdiagnosed her illness agreed to a $5.5 million pretrial settlement.

Types Of Catastrophic Injuries

Fortunately, injuries like this girl’s are rare. The overall injury rate for cheerleading is relatively low, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The most common injury to high school cheerleaders is sprains, with 53 percent of the total injuries. Ankle, knee and wrist injuries often happen when cheerleaders land or fall awkwardly.

But catastrophic injuries do happen, and they happen more often in cheerleading than in other sports. They include:

  • Back and spine injuries. Athletes who jump, tumble and bend their backs a lot may suffer from spondylosis, a stress fracture in the spine. Fractures, paralysis and injuries can also occur from severe falls.
  • Head injuries. Concussions are much less common than sprains and strains. They usually happen when a cheerleader’s head hits the ground after a fall. Skull fractures and other serious head injuries are also possible. Head injuries make up just 4 percent of the total injuries.

As the number of cheerleaders grows, concern about the risk of these serious injuries is growing. In 2003, there were about 3.6 million cheerleaders, including both cheerleaders on the sidelines and competitive cheerers. That’s an increase of 600,000 from 1990.

Making The Sport Safer

Part of the problem, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that cheerleading is not often considered a sport. Just 29 high school athletic associations consider cheerleading a sport and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) does not recognize it as a sport.

If cheerleading were considered a sport, the academy says, it would be subject to the rules and regulations of sports governing bodies and have the benefits that other sports have, such as athletic trainers, limits on practice, better facilities and other safety resources. The academy is also pressing for better training, equipment and supervision for cheerleaders.

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