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Cheerleaders in Helmets? Safety Guidelines Encouraged


We probably won't see cheerleaders in helmets, but according to new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), other safety guidelines are needed to help prevent serious and even life-threatening injuries associated with this activity. Given the increase in complexity of cheerleading activities and the accompanying rise in serious injuries, the AAP believes it's time to take action.

Splits and pom poms are old hat

Some people remember the days when cheerleaders jumped and did splits while shaking their poms poms, but in recent years the world of cheerleading has morphed into an athletic event and a competitive sport. However, about 50 percent of state high school athletic associations recognize cheerleading as an official sport.

According to pediatric sports medicine specialist Cynthia LaBella, MD, of Northwestern University, and a lead author of the new AAP recommendations, "we just want to make sure that they [girl cheerleaders] have the same safety precautions in place as other athletes of other sports."

Today's cheerleaders perform a variety of complicated acrobatic moves that include creating human pyramids, tossing each other in the air, and tumbling. The results of such vigorous actions are disturbing.

In the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, Wayne State University researchers reviewed all the cheerleading injuries reported to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission National Electronic Injury Surveillance System from 2002 to 2007.

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They found 4,245 cases of cheerleaders going to emergency departments during that time period. The average age of the cheerleaders was 14.6 years, and 96.3 percent of them were female. Injuries broke down as follows:

  • 1,871 sprains or sprains (44.1%)
  • 709 fractures (16.7%)
  • 684 contusions (16.1%)
  • The reviewers found that the upper extremity was the most commonly injured part of the body and experienced much greater number of fractures, but that head injuries were more likely to be severe.

According to the AAP, cheerleading is associated with a higher rate of catastrophic injuries than other sports. In fact, over the past quarter century, cheerleading has accounted for about 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries among female high school athletes.

How to reduce cheerleading injuries
Three organizations have voiced opinions about how to reduce cheerleading injuries: the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the AAP. The first two have made recommendations associated with coach training and certification, strength and conditioning for all cheerleaders, not doing stunts and tumbling on hard surfaces, and other rules targeted at certain technical skills.

The AAP concurs with these recommendations and has provided some of its own, which in part include:

  • Cheerleaders should received training in proper spotting techniques
  • Pyramids should not be more than two people high
  • Tosses, mounts, and other technical skills should not be done on hard, wet, uneven, or obstructed surfaces
  • Cheerleaders who experience a head injury should be removed from practice or competition and allowed to return only after receiving written clearance from a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider

The new safety guidelines recommended by the AAP and other organizations will hopefully make cheerleading a safer activity. But you don't need to worry about seeing your favorite cheerleaders in helmets!

Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Cheerleading injuries: epidemiology and recommendations for prevention. Pediatrics 2012; doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2480
Jacobson NA et al. Epidemiology of cheerleading injuries presenting to NEISS hospitals from 2002 to 2007. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 2012 Feb; 72(2): 521-26

Image: Wikimedia Commons