Cheerleading: Athletes With Spirit! Athletes At Risk

By Dr. Michael Gruber

Cheerleading has certainly been in the news recently, for better or worse. The good news is that competitive cheerleading is being recognized for its athleticism as a sport (or “athletic activity” as preferred by its coaching organization) with explosive growth. The bad news is that this exponential growth has been accompanied by a proportionate increase in cheerleading related injuries, some of them severe. Although sensationalized to some degree in the media, the fact remains that competitive cheerleading has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of catastrophic injury (generally, severe head or neck injury) among high school and college female sports. The statistics on this are debated, but at least one study showed that over two thirds of the catastrophic injuries to female college athletes occurred in cheerleading. All of this may be news to the casual observer, but the more than 3.5 million U.S cheerleaders will tell you that competitive cheerleading is a sport with risk. In fact, the risk approaches or exceeds the risk per hour of participation in the football players for whom they cheer. Most injuries don’t make the news but are reflected in the fact that more than 25,000 cheerleaders were treated in emergency rooms in 2007, and many times that were seen in private physician offices. These findings have led to increased awareness of the dangers and a subsequent increase in attempts to decrease this danger. Recommendations now limit such things as the height of pyramids, the number and arrangement of spotters and the “thrower to flyer” ratio. Mats are to be used whenever possible and should always be used in practice. These recommendations can be found at the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators website, and their widespread adoption is making catastrophic injury less common.

Fortunately, most injuries in cheerleading are considered minor and are generally sprains and strains amenable to early R.I.C.E therapy (rest, ice, compression, elevation). I get involved when the injury is more severe or lingers despite early treatment. It is common to see cheerleaders with significant knee or shoulder injuries requiring advanced treatment or even surgery. As in all competitive athletics, proper conditioning and training minimizes the risk of such injury. Flexibility and strength training, good nutrition and the judicious use of rest are all important to minimize the risk of overuse injuries in this demanding year-round sport.

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