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Cheerleading Injuries on the Rise

Heightened Competition Makes Sport More Dangerous Than Ever Before

WebMD Health News

Oct. 22, 2002 -- As cheerleading has moved from the sidelines to center court, it's joined the ranks of other competitive sports as a leading cause of major injuries among girls. New statistics show cheerleading causes more catastrophic injuries resulting in paralysis or death among high school and college-age girls than any other sport.

Despite these dangers, experts say cheerleading receives little of the research, support, and preventive attention that other varsity sports such as football and baseball enjoy.

"We need to recognize that cheerleading is a sport and not sideline entertainment," says Sally Harris, MD, MPH, of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California. Harris presented new data on cheerleading-related injuries this week at the American Academy of Pediatrics Conference and Exhibition in Boston.

"Cheerleading is a rapidly growing sport, primarily for girls, but there is very little information about it, and hardly anything in the published medical literature," says Harris. "Yet we see girls with injuries from cheerleading that are more severe than with other sports."

Harris says cheerleading has evolved into a highly competitive sport that has very little to do with cheering. Today, it relies heavily on complicated gymnastics maneuvers, lifting, and multilevel pyramid building rather than just shouting and shaking pom-poms.

The high-impact nature of modern competitive cheerleading has prompted a rise in cheerleading-related injuries. Some of the most commonly reported injuries -- often the result of falls, dismounts, and weight-bearing stunts -- are to the ankle, knees, back, wrist, and hands.

In fact, Harris says, cheerleading has a higher proportion of injuries that turn out to be serious fractures and dislocations than is seen in other sports.

"Cheerleading is incredibly demanding on all body parts," says Harris. "And there is no off season."

As many as 5 million girls and young women currently participate in cheerleading in community, school, and college squads, and they often start as early as age 5.

Harris says the recent growth of organized, competitive cheerleading that happens outside of the schools has made the sport increasingly risky and more difficult to monitor for safety. But even school-sponsored cheerleading squads usually suffer from inadequate supervision, a lack of access to on-site medical care, and practice on inappropriate surfaces, such as gym floors or hallways.

Safety guidelines for cheerleading vary drastically by school, state, and organization. Some states have banned some of the most dangerous stunts such as pyramids and basket tosses at the high school and/or college level in an effort to reduce injuries.

Several national organizations, including the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), have proposed implementing the following safety guidelines in order to reduce the risk associated with cheerleading:

  • Prospective cheerleaders should undergo pre-participation medical exams that screen for underlying medical conditions such as heart or seizure disorders.
  • Participants should be continually screened for eating disorders.
  • Appropriate supervision by persons trained in first aid and spotting of gymnastic maneuvers should be provided at practices and competitions.
  • Appropriate practice facilities should be provided.
  • Proper training to enhance muscle strength and flexibility should be encouraged as well as the gradual progression to more complex stunts.
  • Cheerleaders should wear shoes that provide adequate ankle support.
  • Access to medical care and emergency services should be provided.

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