How Dangerous is Cheerleading?

Cheerleaders warming up for competition

As a bright, young cheerleader trying out for the high-school varsity squad in Livonia, Mich., 14-year-old Laura Jackson had everything going for her. But when a back flip went wrong during a try-out without a trained spotter on hand, Laura landed on her head, fracturing her neck and damaging her spinal cord. She is now paralyzed and breathes with the help of a ventilator.

Cheerleading has become the leading cause of catastrophic injury in young female athletes, says Amy Miller Bohn, M.D., a physician at the University of Michigan Health System’s department of family medicine.

Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that rates of injuries from cheerleading accidents have gone from nearly 5,000 in 1980 to somewhere between 26,000 and 28,000 in the past few years, Miller Bohn says. These injuries account for 65 to 66 percent of all female catastrophic injuries in either high school or college.

Cheerleading injuries appear to be on the rise partly because of an increase in participants, but the sport has also changed significantly in the past 25 years. Cheerleading no longer consists of athletes standing on the sidelines, rooting for a team.

“Cheerleading has become an actual competitive sport,” Miller Bohn says. If participants want to be on one of the better teams, compete at high levels and be invited to competitions, athletes must include a higher degree of difficulty and risk in routines. This means fewer traditional pyramids and more tossing people in the air, jumping off pyramids and trying risky stunts.

Miller Bohn believes there aren’t enough safety measures in place in schools. Many athletes will practice in places such as a back yard, a hard gym floor or a parking lot. There are often no supportive surfaces, such as mats and a spring-loaded floor, to help protect them during falls. Participants also lack adequate supervision.

If a trained coach is not present to ensure participants are using proper techniques and to make sure spotters are placed where they should be, injuries may occur.
The experience of the coaching staff is also important. It’s recommended that a coach have first-aid and CPR training. It’s also preferred that they have training in how to coach athletes regarding development, strength, conditioning and flexibility.

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