Cheerleading has evolved from once being considered “not a sport” to a revolutionized activity that involves acrobatics, tumbling, complex stunts, and fast-paced routines. It’s a growing sport with participants in school cheerleading squads, youth leagues, and all-star traveling teams. Likewise, the rate of injury continues to rise as more athletes become involved and as routines and stunts increasingly become more complex.
How do injuries occur?
Surprisingly, most injuries occur while cheerleaders are on the ground basing and spotting. Basing and spotting refers to participants who are responsible for either holding a teammate in an elevated stunt (basing) or who stand nearby to catch their teammate before he or she hits the ground (spotting). Not surprisingly, falls from heights are also a common mechanism of injury in cheerleading. Falls usually occur when flyers, or cheerleaders who are held in an elevated position, fall or are dropped and they land on an outstretched arm, ankle, or more traumatically, on their head or neck. Tumbling causes a significant number of injuries as well. Tumblers either begin from a standing, stationary position or they take a running start before executing their tumbling pass.
No matter the age group, when cheerleaders are evaluated, lower extremity injuries are the most common. However, younger age groups (6 to 11 year-olds) are more likely to suffer from upper extremity injuries while older 12
to 17 year-olds are more likely to have a lower extremity injury. Cheerleading-related injuries range from sprains (stretching or tearing a ligament), strains (stretching or tearing a muscle or tendon), fractures, lacerations (a cut), and a multitude of other injuries. Sprains and strains are the most common injury with skin abrasions (cuts and scrapes) and contusions (bruises) the second and third leading injuries. Fractures and dislocations are common injuries as well. A dislocation involves a displacement of the bone; for example, the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) displaces out of the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. Finally, concussions and head injuries are the least common injury seen in cheerleading. Concussion rates are low compared to other sports; however, the number of concussions reported in cheerleaders are on the rise, most likely due to the intensity and difficulty of
stunts being performed.
While there are many risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of an injury, the major cause is practicing or performing on the wrong type of surface. Cheerleaders tend to practice on many different types of surfaces, that include mats, foam floor, spring floor, concrete, tile floor, football fields, and gym floors. The preferred and safer surface would be those that are designed for the sport (mats, foam floor, or spring floors). The hard, less-safe surfaces put athletes at risk when stunting or tumbling during a routine.
Prevention is key in keeping athletes healthy and injury-free. Coaches should take part in training and certifications to learn the safety rules and standards that will keep their athletes safe. A safety-certified coach knows what surface the squad should use and will follow the recommendations set forth by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors (AACCA).
Make safety a high priority
The safety of each cheerleader should be the highest priority when planning, practicing, and performing. Setting that priority can come from the coaches, administration, medical personnel, and participants—everyone can do their part. If athletes are supervised by knowledgeable coaches who follow the safety recommendations, cheerleaders are most likely to finish the season and competition injury free.
Author: BreAnna Hankins, MS, LAT, ATC
Reprinted with permission from the Hughston Health Alert, Volume 29, Number 4, Fall 2017.