By Kathy Hubbard
“Right now, everyone, please pray for my daughter. We’re at the emergency room and the doctors are with her.” My niece posted this on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Not surprisingly, it scared me. Totally. So, I immediately called my sister-in-law only to find out that my great-niece had sprained her wrist during cheerleading practice.
“Well, it could have been broken, and then she wouldn’t have been able to compete at state,” the drama-mamma told me later. Yeah, that was something to pray for! I, of course was envisioning a severe, debilitating brain injury; or a spinal cord injury that would have left her a paraplegic, or worse.
The fact is that cheerleading is a tough and dangerous sport. Don’t let the pom-poms and hair ribbons fool you. According to a 2013 Washington Post article, cheerleading is the cause of over 50 percent of catastrophic injuries, and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons classifies cheerleading as among the top 20 sports with the highest ratio of head injuries.
“Consider the typical cheerleading stunt,” wrote Alex Lyman for the Huntington Post. Lyman is a master’s student at Western New England University. “There is a flyer, who is the person being held up in the stunt. Two bases support the flyer, and the back supports the bases and the flyer with stability.
“It is not easy or natural to lift an entire person in this way. With four (or more) people involved in a single stunt that can top eight death-defying feet, one wrong move can spell disaster. The flyer can be injured if they aren’t caught correctly (or at all) by their bases, and the bases can be injured should the flyer fall on top of them. Similarly, tumbling passes can result in painful falls and collisions if not executed as intended.”
Add to the athleticism the fact that cheerleading is a year-round activity, so cheerleaders are practicing and performing much longer than without much of an off-season. Some cheerleaders practice up to four hours per day, and most accidents occur while learning new skills.
The most common injuries, according the American Academy of Pediatrics are ankle sprains. As with any jumping exercise the cheerleader can land on the outside of the foot, twisting the ankle inward. This, of course, can also cause a bone to break which will make the convalescence longer than your typical sprain.
Ankle sprains are followed by knee injuries then wrist injuries. My great-niece lost her balance and fell onto her outstretched hand. Spondylolysis, a stress fracture in the spine is a common injury, not just in cheerleading but also in gymnastics or any activity that involves jumping, tumbling and back-bending.
Then, there are head injuries. “Concussions in cheerleading usually occur when a cheerleader’s head hits the ground after a severe fall,” The AAP says. And, they warn, “All concussions are serious, and all athletes with suspected concussions should not return to play until they see a doctor.”
Lyman agrees with that. “If you do take a serious fall while cheerleading and suspect you may have a concussion insist upon seeking medical attention immediately. Don’t keep cheering, and don’t allow an adult or teammates to tell you to shake it off. You know your body best, and when in doubt, it is always better to be safe than sorry.”
There are steps cheerleaders can take to prevent injuries. Strength training and conditioning can help stop strains and sprains of the ankle, back, knee and wrist. But, possibly the best prevention is knowing what you’re capable of doing.
“If you cheer, no matter what your position, advocate for yourself. Speak up if you aren’t comfortable with a stunt or tumbling pass. Never let anyone pressure you into doing something you aren’t ready for. Also, don’t let anyone compromise your safety by fooling around, not paying attention, or stunting improperly. When done correctly, tumbling and stunting can be both impressive and safe. But, make no mistake, attempting a stunt you aren’t comfortable with isn’t worth the life-altering changes and injuries that could result,” Lyman said.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or email@example.com.