Today's cheerleaders do much more than stand on the sidelines. They fly through the air, tumble across mats and challenge themselves with difficult choreography to stand out – and win – at competitions.
"We're seeing more and more cheerleading injuries – and many of those injuries are fairly serious – with the increased difficulty and rising popularity of competitive cheer," explains Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
In fact, cheerleading is consistently ranked among the most dangerous sports for females and is second only behind football in rates of concussions among its athletes.
Dr. Smurawa shares the most common cheerleading injuries and how they can be prevented.
Common cheer injuries
Cheerleading injuries can affect all areas of the body: the wrists, shoulders, ankles, back, head and neck. The type of cheer injury can vary depending on the role of the cheerleader. Just like any other sports team, there are different positions on a cheerleading team. Flyers are the cheerleaders who are tossed into the air or placed at the top of the pyramid. Stunters (or spotters) are the base of the pyramid and are often responsible for throwing and catching flyers. Tumblers perform impressive tumbling passes as they flip across the mat.
The most common cheerleading injuries include:
- Sprains and strains: Tumbling injuries in cheerleading often include sprains and strains to the ankles, knees, hands and wrists from the impact of flips and passes.
- Fractures and dislocations: Flyers are more likely to experience fractures from the high impact of falling if a stunt goes wrong. Tumblers are also at risk of dislocating their knee or elbow from landing incorrectly.
- Back injuries: Cheerleading back injuries are most common in stunters. Tumblers also are at risk of low back injuries.
- Head injuries and concussions: Cheerleading concussion statistics have risen by nearly 200% in the past decade because of the increased difficulty of the skills performed in competitive cheerleading. Concussions, head and neck injuries are most common among flyers.
How to prevent cheerleading injuries
Despite these alarming cheerleading injury statistics, competitive cheer can be a safe sport. Dr. Smurawa recommends a few simple tips for parents, athletes and coaches to reduce risk of cheerleading injuries.
1. Focus on skills
There are different types of cheerleading skills, and athletes need to focus on exercises and training that supports those needs. Proper conditioning and performance training can help prevent injury.
- Spotters need upper body and core strength to be able to catch teammates safely – and without injury.
- Flyers need to emphasize balance and coordination to twist and flip through the air.
- Tumblers need to focus on balance and strength to complete tumbling passes.
2. Recover completely before return
It's tempting to rush back onto the mat after initial recovery from an injury, but athletes should make sure they take enough time to fully recover. Cheerleaders can reduce the risk of reinjury by regaining strength, balance and range of motion before jumping into the skills and stunts they were performing prior to injury.
"Recovery isn't an overnight process," Dr. Smurawa says. "That can be difficult for any athlete, particularly if it's their first injury. But it's up to the athletic trainers, parents and coaches to guide that process and make sure cheerleaders understand the risk they take of jumping back in before they are fully healed."
3. Put the right supervision and skill level in place
Adult supervision is a must when it comes to practicing stunts and skills – whether a practice is taking place in a gym or the backyard. It's also important for parents and coaches to make sure cheerleaders aren't trying new skills they aren't ready for.
"An injury is more likely to happen when a cheerleader tries a stunt they don't yet have the skillset for," Dr. Smurawa says. "Encourage cheerleaders to follow a safe progression before moving to a higher degree of difficulty."
4. Keep conversations open and ongoing
The best way to help keep cheerleaders safe is by regularly checking in with them. Dr. Smurawa encourages parents to:
- Watch practice to ensure there is adequate supervision and athletes aren't showing warning signs of fatigue or injury. Cheerleaders should not attempt a stunt if they are tired, injured or not feeling well.
- Talk to your cheerleader if you do notice signs of injury such as limping, limited range of motion or complaining about practice.
- Ask about practice and the team even if there isn't a suspected injury. This regular conversation helps keep the door open so it's easier for cheerleaders to talk to parents if they are injured.
The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our programs and services.
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