Cheerleader Safety Guidelines Issued
October 23, 2012

Health Organization Recommends Safety Policies For Cheerleaders

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

On a Friday night, the local high school stadium is filled to the brim with students, parents, and teachers watching a football game. Just when the referee blows the whistle, the players head back to the sidelines to take a break. As the jocks trickle in from the field, a group of girls dressed in short skirts and waving pom poms run to the field, shouting out cheers, completing back flips, and even being tossed in the air. The moves, a mix of dance and gymnastic elements, are so difficult that a girl could be injured at any minute. As a result of this kind of problem, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently published a statement that encourages coaches, parents, and school administrators to limit injuries by following safety guidelines listed by the organization as well as by creating emergency plans that will allow cheerleaders access to coaches, medical care, and injury surveillance should an issue arise.

What started as a way to lead audience members in cheers at football games, cheerleading has evolved into a competitive, year-round sport.

"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," Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a co-author of the new policy who works as a sports medicine specialist at Chicago's Lurie Children's Hospital, told ABC News.

Despite a surge in the popularity of the sport, there have been a number of serious injuries that have occurred. The AAP reports that, since 2007, 26,000 injuries related to cheerleading have occurred in the U.S. every year. As well, over the past 25 years, cheerleading has caused 66 percent of all “catastrophic injuries” for female high school athletes. The AAP released the statement at the AAP National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans as well as published it in the November issue of Pediatrics.

"Cheerleading has become extremely competitive in the past few years, incorporating more complex skills than ever before," commented LaBella, who serves as a member of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, in a prepared statement. "Relatively speaking, the injury rate is low compared to other sports, but despite the overall lower rate, the number of catastrophic injuries continues to climb. That is an area of concern and needs attention for improving safety."

According to the AAP, cheerleading should be considered a sport so that cheerleaders can receive necessary protection like qualified coaches, facilities that are maintained at a certain standard, mandated sports physicals and surveillance of injuries, as well as consultation with certified athletic trainers. Currently, only 29 U.S. states recognize cheerleading as a high school cheerleading sport. It is not included under the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

"The reason we promote having all the states recognizing it as a sport is because it would be a simple way to provide these services for the cheerleaders," remarked LaBella in the Reuters article.

In addition, the AAP believes that a majority of the injuries are related to sprains and strains of the lower extremities, followed by injuries to the head and neck. 96 percent of concussions and 42 percent to 60 percent of all injuries are related to the physically demanding skills of cheerleading that feature stunts like pyramid building as well as lifting, catching, and tossing cheerleaders. As well, there can be increased injuries as cheerleaders become older. Cheerleaders at the collegiate level have the highest rate of injury as compared to cheerleaders in middle school and highs school. Risk factors that can increase chance of injury include performance on hard surfaces, insufficient coaching, previous injury, complicated stunts, as well as higher body mass index.

"Most serious injuries, including catastrophic ones, occur while performing complex stunts such as pyramids,” noted Dr. Jeffrey Mjaanes, a member of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness who helped co-author the new guidelines, in the prepared statement. "Simple steps to improve safety during these stunts could significantly decrease the injury rate and protect young cheerleaders."

Others disagree with some points made by the AAP. Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), told Reuters that he believes that cheerleading should not be listed as a sport because the athletes do not compete regularly, a requirement for some states and organizations. As well, while the AAP recommended that pyramids and stunts only be performed with foam or spring boards, Lord stated that it would be difficult to do so. However, Lord believes that it should be possible to come to an agreement with the AAP.

"Most of this is actually stuff we've recommended for quite a while," Lord told Reuters.