Once considered a sideline activity, cheerleading is evolving into a more athletic and competitive sport for many schools. Unfortunately, while overall injury rates among cheerleaders are lower than most other high school sports, the injuries that do occur tend to be more severe.
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One recent study shows that cheerleading ranks 18th-lowest out of 22 high school sports in terms of injury rate. But of all the sports studied, cheerleading ranked second — behind gymnastics — in the proportion of injuries that resulted in an athlete being benched for at least three weeks or for the entire season.
The study, which examined data from a national high school sports injury surveillance system between 2009 and 2014 , also showed that concussions were the most common cheerleading injury, at 31 percent of injuries.
However, the study says, concussion rates were significantly lower in cheerleading (with 2.2 per 10,000 athlete-exposures) than all other high school sports combined (3.8 per 10,000 exposures) and all other girls’ sports combined (2.7 per 10,000 exposures).
Non-contact doesn’t mean zero risk
When experts categorize concussion risk in sports, they tend to separate them between contact sports or non-contact sports. But it’s important to recognize that even non-contact sports carry some risk, says neurologist Andrew Russman, DO.
That risk will vary depending on the type of activity that a person is doing. For instance, swimmers, in general, are considered to be at a very low-risk for concussion. However, those swimmers who also are divers are at a much higher risk, Dr. Russman says.
Like any sport, cheerleading carries a risk for injury, so it’s important for participants — and their parents — to be aware of that risk, Dr. Russman says.
“Participants need to be aware that stunting itself carries this risk, especially for the flyer — the young person who’s being tossed high into the air, and subsequently being caught by somebody else and landing either on the ground or colliding with another person who’s supposed to catch them,” Dr. Russman says.
Cheerleaders also can be injured during pyramids and tumbling routines, Dr. Russman says.
Whether cheerleading is classified as a sport or an extra-curricular activity varies from state to state.
It’s important for participants and parents to pay attention to the nature of the activity that is taking place, not just how a sport is classified on paper, Dr. Russman says. Organizations that incorporate stunting and tumbling into cheering need to have the same medical resources available and follow the same concussion protocols as other sports, he says.
“If they’re not currently involved, I would encourage schools or communities to make sure that they’re getting those medical resources available because those risks of injuries are higher in cheerleading with stunting than other sports,” Dr. Russman says.
Dr. Russman said anyone who suffers a concussion needs to be evaluated by an appropriate concussion provider and allowed proper recovery time before resuming activity.