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Pediatricians:  Cheerleading needs sports safety rules

Yorkville High School varsity cheerleaders work their routine during Yorkville Middle School. | Beacon-News file photo

Yorkville High School varsity cheerleaders work on their routine during at Yorkville Middle School. | Beacon-News file photo

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Cheerleader injuries

Cheerleading has accounted for approximately 66 percent of catastrophic injuries in high school girl athletes over the past 25 years.

Number of emergency room visits
for cheerleading injuries:

1980: 4,954 2011: nearly 37,000

Stunting — exhibitions in which one or more person is elevated and/or tossed — accounts for 42 percent to 60 percent of all cheerleading injuries and 96 percent of concussions and head injuries. Pyramid stunts are responsible for the majority of head/neck injuries.

Types of injuries

Sprains and strains: 53 percent

Abrasions/contusions: 13 to 18 percent

Fractures/dislocations: 10 to 16 percent

Lacerations/punctures: 4 percent

Head injuries: 3.5 to 4 percent

Overall injury rate for female high school athletes, per 1,000:

Cheerleading: 0.9

Gymnastics: 8.5 Soccer: 5.3

Basketball: 4.4 Field hockey: 3.7

Softball: 3.5 Volleyball: 1.7

Source: “Cheerleading Injuries: Epidemiology and Recommendations for Prevention,” American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Updated: October 23, 2012 1:09PM

Cheerleading isn’t just jumping and waving pompoms — it has become as athletic and potentially as dangerous as a sport and should be designated one to improve safety, the nation’s leading group of pediatricians says.

The number of cheerleaders injured each year has climbed dramatically in the last two decades. Common stunts that pose risks include tossing and flipping cheerleaders in the air and creating human pyramids that reach 15 feet high or more.

In a new policy statement released online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics says school sports associations should designate cheerleading as a sport, and make it subject to safety rules and better supervision. That would include on-site athletic trainers, limits on practice time and better qualified coaches, the academy says.

Just like other athletes, cheerleaders should be required to do conditioning exercises and undergo physical exams before joining the squad, the new policy says.

“Not everyone is fully aware of how cheerleading has evolved over the last couple of decades. It used to be just standing on the sidelines and doing cheers and maybe a few jumps,” said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital and an author of the new policy.

But she said cheerleading often results in injuries that include severe sprains, broken arms and legs, neck injuries and concussions.

Last year, there were almost 37,000 emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries among girls aged 6 to 22, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s more than four times higher than in 1980, when cheerleading was tamer.

While there are still traditional cheerleading squads that support schools’ athletic teams, some schools and private clubs have separate cheerleading teams that compete against other teams. And the Illinois High School Association already recognizes “competitive cheerleading” as a high school sport.

Kali Wald of Elburn suffered a serious concussion last year during an acrobatic routine with Kaneland High School’s competitive team; teammates tossed her in the air but she landed wrong twice, first on her upper back and neck, then on her head. She blacked out for several minutes.

Her father, Dave Wald, said her coaches didn’t realize she was seriously injured and never called an ambulance. She still has short-term memory loss and can’t attend school full-time because of dizziness, headaches and other concussion symptoms.

Kali, 18, said she believes that cheerleading should be considered a sport and made safer.

Her father agreed and said there needs to be better awareness about the rigors of cheerleading and the potential risks.

Injuries have increased as cheerleading has become more popular. Data suggest there are more than 3 million cheerleaders nationwide aged 6 and older, mostly girls. That includes about 400,000 in high school, according to data cited in the new policy.

Bonnie Kehlringer, an insurance agent who coaches Aurora Central’s cheerleading squad, said in her eight years as coach she’s seen more of an emphasis on stunts in the sport. Aurora Central’s team dealt with a mild concussion and a leg injury this year.

“Cheerleading to me is as much a sport as volleyball or basketball,” Kehlringer said.

And while Central’s squad has evolved from performing “halves and extensions” to higher-level stunts, the new tricks have not put the squad into a more dangerous stunt category as other competitive squads.

“The things that some of these kids do at other schools — I hold my breath sometimes,” Kehlringer said. “They’re doing basket tosses where it looks like they’re going to touch the ceiling. You see it become more and more technical.”

While the overall injury rate in high school cheerleading is lower than in other girls sports, including gymnastics, soccer and field hockey, the rate of catastrophic injuries like skull fractures and paralyzing spine injuries is higher, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted.

Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators, said the pediatrics academy’s policy mirrors many of his group’s safety recommendations for high schools and colleges.

That includes limiting the height of human pyramids in high school cheerleading to just two people. The academy also says routines that include pyramids, tumbling or tosses should not be performed on hard surfaces.

Beacon-News Staff writer Stephanie Lulay contributed to this story.

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