Cheerleading has changed drastically since its inception, and as cheerleaders became more athletic and tried more daring stunts, injuries began to rise. In fact, according to National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (p.26), cheerleading ranked as the most dangerous female sport in 2009. Given the multitude of ways in which cheerleaders could suffer injury, this statistic isn't entirely surprising.
Most injuries suffered in cheerleading are non-catastrophic injuries, or those that are not life-threatening or permanently life-altering. According to a 2006 report on cheerleading injuries published in the journal Pediatrics, injury statistics break down as follows:
- 52.4 percent strains and sprains
- 18.4 percent soft tissue injuries
- 16.4 percent fractures and dislocations
- 3.8 percent lacerations and avulsions
- 3.5 percent concussions and closed head injuries
- 5.5 percent other injuries
The most common injuries occur to the lower extremities, particularly the ankle and knee. Wrist injuries are also quite common. If you think of the multitude of jumps, stunts and tumbling routines that cheerleaders participate in, it's easy to understand how a cheerleader could land incorrectly and suffer this type of injury. Unfortunately, even non-catastrophic injuries can interfere with participation in sports, and many cheerleaders find themselves sidelined during the season while undergoing rest, rehabilitation or even surgery.
Catastrophic injuries are those that involve the head, neck and back, or those that result in death or permanent disability. Cheerleaders are particularly susceptible to this type of injury because they often fall from a height or land in an awkward, upside-down position. Between 1982 and 2009, a total of 18 male and female cheerleaders died either directly or indirectly from the sport according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. An additional 102 female cheerleaders suffered other non-fatal catastrophic injuries, and cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of all high school and college female athlete catastrophic injuries.
More catastrophic injuries were likely to occur in high school than in college, despite the more advanced stunting routines performed at the college level. This is likely due to less experienced cheerleaders learning stunts for the first time, potentially from a coach who is unfamiliar with proper safety protocols and techniques.
While all athletes have to expect that injuries aren't entirely preventable, precautions can and should be made to prevent as many injuries from occurring as possible. First, make sure you're practicing under the direct supervision of a qualified coach, particularly one who has received cheerleading-specific training and certification. Other precautionary steps you should take include:
- Use landing mats whenever possible, particularly when trying new skills
- Follow the high school and college mandated rules for pyramids and basket tosses (bases must remain in contact with the floor, suspended cheerleader must not rotate while dismounting or allow her head to fall below a horizontal angle, pyramids can only be two levels high for high schoolers or two and a half body lengths for college)
- If performing on a wet surface, like a football field on a rainy day, avoid doing any advanced gymnastics moves
- Progress stunts slowly and in accordance with your coach's recommendations
- Always use spotters who have been trained in proper spotting technique
The Future of Cheerleading Injuries
In 1990, 10,900 cheerleaders were admitted to the hospital for cheer injuries. In 2002, that number jumped to 22,900, a rise of 110 percent, according to Pediatrics. Cheerleading's increased popularity has something to do with this rise, but it's also largely due to the difficulty of the skills performed. Don't take your risk lightly - in order to decrease cheerleading injuries in the future, every cheerleader needs to take ownership of her own safety as well as the safety of her teammates. Follow guidelines and never perform a skill that you're not 100 percent ready to perform.