Cheerleader injury rates rising

Young all-star cheerleaders at Nebraska Cheer Center practice their routine. Cheerleading accounts for two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries for high school girls, often resulting from high-flying stunts.

Anna Reed, NewsNetNebraska

Pom-poms and pleated skirts are usually what come to mind when thinking of cheerleading. However, two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries to high school girls come from cheer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Cheerleading is not considered an official sport in 21 states, including Nebraska. Yet the number of injuries has been rising for decades. Cheerleading has grown in popularity and more young girls and boys are participating than ever before.

From 1990 to 2002, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of cheerleaders, ages 6 and older, grew from nearly 3 million to about 3.5 million.  The percentage of injuries though  more than doubled;  from nearly 3 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent in 2002, according to the Academy.

The increase in injuries is related to the style of cheer the athletes are performing, according to experts in the field.  Many cheer academies and gyms have the squads perform stunts like human pyramids, flips, throws and other high-flying acrobatic moves.  The height and speed of the flips and throws can lead to major injuries if not performed correctly, say coaches.

Cheerleading Gyms

        “Safety reminders and tips are a part of every class, every day,” said Nicki Baker, owner and coach at Nebraska Cheer Center in Lincoln. “We have seen how dangerous it can be, so we keep all our staff up-to-date on training and all our equipment new and in the best condition to keep our athletes safe.”

Nicki Baker, owner and coach at Nebraska Cheer Center (bottom right) watches a stunt to see if there are ways to make it safer.

Baker also coached high school cheerleading before opening her gym three years ago and would like to see it be considered a sport in the public schools of Nebraska.

Cheerleading as a High School Sport?

“I think (cheerleading) should get the same recognition as gymnastics, swimming, basketball, all of that,” she said.  “Sometimes I think the cheerleaders put in more time in high school than other athletes because they attend all the other sports, so they should get the same recognition.”

Laura Graulty, a cheer sponsor at Lincoln East High School, also believes cheerleading should be considered an official sport in the schools.

“I would love for my cheerios [cheerleaders] to be able to go to the trainer if they have a sprain, because right now the trainer is busy with athletes he has to see,” she said.  “If it were considered to be a sport, then I would be able to get my girls in to see him and get quicker and more regular medical attention.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling on school districts nation-wide to recognize cheerleading as an official sport alongside football, basketball, soccer and others.  In an article published in November, the Academy recommends making cheerleading an official sport in order to help reduce and prevent injuries to cheerleaders.

“Designation of cheerleading as a sport will afford it the same benefits as other sports, such as availability of athletic trainers, improved access to medical care, limits on practice time, better facilities, certified/qualified coaches, and inclusion in injury surveillance data,” the statement said.

Cheerleaders with injuries, like ankle sprains, often skip some stunts and tumbles during practice to avoid further injury.

“Nagging, chronic injuries”         

Chuck Kasson, a certified Athletic Trainer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Snyder Physical Therapy in Lincoln Neb., said he sees cheerleaders coming into his office mainly with “nagging, chronic injuries.” “We mainly see overuse injuries, muscle strains, shin splints and foot and ankle injuries coming in with cheerleaders,” he said.  Kasson also said he tries to emphasize the prevention of injuries in cheerleaders by making sure they are not doing stunts and skills they are not ready for.

Because cheerleading is not considered a sport in Nebraska schools, the teams are “grounded,” meaning they are not allowed to perform stunts like human pyramids, flips or throws.

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“I would like to do high school cheer because I think it would be fun, but I do more with stunting and special skills in competitive cheer than I would with high school,” said Lyndsey Mickle, a Lincoln Southwest junior and athlete at Nebraska Cheer Center. “I think the sponsors in high school would need to be better trained before making it a real sport too. At my school they are just regular teachers, so they aren’t as fully trained as competitive cheer coaches.”

Baker, as a current cheer gym coach and former high school cheer sponsor, believes cheer should be considered a sport in high school. But she does not see it happening anytime soon.

“If it were a sport,” she said, “we would be able to do the stunting in school, but right now a lot of the cheer sponsors in Lincoln aren’t properly trained for stunts, so you would have to get a whole new pool of coaches and I don’t think the schools really have the funds for that.”

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