Give me a "D" for Dangerous!

2/24/2014

During most sporting events, most parents and coaches focus on the safety of the players on the field. But there’s growing evidence they should be paying closer attention to the jumping, tumbling, and flipping athletes on the sidelines as well.

The days when cheerleaders stood around just clapping and shouting are long gone. “Cheerleading today is a very demanding sport that can lead to the same types of injuries as any other strenuous athletic activity,” says Geoffrey Collins, MD, sports medicine specialist and orthopaedic surgeon with Center for Orthopaedics, an affiliate of Imperial Health, and member of the medical staff of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital.

Researchers have felt for years that cheerleading was more dangerous than the public perceived, but records were poorly kept until recently. Several reports released underscore the high incidence of injuries. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, which tracks sports safety nationwide, found that cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries among female high school and college athletes. This translates to a rate of 2.68 catastrophic injuries for every 100,000 female high school cheerleaders, which exceeds the rate for many other high school sports. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that the number of emergency room visits to treat cheerleading injuries of any kind jumped from nearly 5000 in 1980 to over 26,000 in recent years. The medical journal Pediatrics also posted similar concerns about cheerleading injuries in January.

In general, most cheerleading injuries are minor strains, sprains, and bruises, according to Dr. Collins. “However, these new studies show that both the total number of injuries and the frequency of severe injuries are much higher than we’d like to see for any sport.”

Some experts feel the increase in cheerleading-related injuries can be attributed to the sheer increase in the number of young women engaged in the sport. Others feel the rise in serious injuries appears related to the increasing difficulty of the acrobatic routines cheerleaders perform and the increasingly competitive nature of the sport. Dr. Collins agrees that these factors do play a role. “Cheer teams aren’t just cheering on their school teams, they are training for competitions against other squads on a regional and national level,” says Dr. Collins. “And in addition to school teams, dance studios and cheer academies have students involved and competing in the sport as well.”

Now that measures are in place to monitor injuries, there is a new emphasis on safety for the sport. “Whether you're a cheerleader, coach or parent, your main objective should be to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” says Dr. Collins. “Knowing why the majority of injuries occur will help you better understand how to prevent them.” He says most cheerleading injuries occur for some very easy-to-identify reasons: lack of conditioning, risk-taking choices, inadequate spotting, improper or unsafe equipment, and practicing or performing on non-cushioned surfaces.

Dr. Collins adds that parents of cheerleaders can play a big role in helping prevent severe injuries by checking out the qualifications of those working with their children. “Don’t be afraid to ask about their experience, the safety measures they use, what types of stunts will be performed, who will be supervising every practice, and their plan for handling any injuries that occur.”

Just like any other sport, cheerleading brings with it some unavoidable risks, and no amount of prevention can eliminate the chance of injury, but Dr. Collins stresses that with the proper information and knowledge, the severity and frequency of injuries can be greatly reduced.

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