Cheerleading injuries on the rise

The stunts are crowd pleasers at games, but cheerleading is drawing the attention of a different audience. Sports medicine experts say injuries are on the rise, and they’d like participants to play it safer.

Caitlin Curry, former cheerleader: “I’ve done dance my whole life but I’ve never done cheerleading.”

Until two years ago when she made the squad at DePaul University.

Caitlin Curry: “I ended up making the team because they needed flyers. I’m shorter and they can get you higher in the air. We were testing some movements on the mat. They throw you up in the air, spin you and bring you back down.”

Spotters were at the ready, but Caitlin slipped through.

Caitlin Curry: “I landed with my toes pointed so I tore three or four ligaments in my foot.”

A painful injury but not as serious as some of the others Rush sports medicine specialist Dr. Jeff Mjaanes has treated.

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, Rush Sports Medicine Specialist: “I’ve seen a lot of shoulder dislocations and shoulder injuries. The big concern is catastrophic injuries.”

Like concussions and skull and neck fractures. The national average among cheerleaders is five catastrophic injuries a year.

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes: “Cheerleading has completely evolved to this sport with a lot of acrobatics, gymnastic-style stunts, tumbling, pyramid-building, partner stunts and basket tosses and all these things that weren’t involved 20 or 30 years ago.”

That’s why Dr. Mjaanes and his colleagues spoke up and wrote guidelines aimed at improving safety. They’re hoping more coaches and school officials answer the call to action.

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes: “We would like some uniformity in terms of the surface they’re performing these stunts on. The surface should be a flexible surface. A harder surface is much more likely to cause an injury.”

Ninety-six percent of concussions occur during complex stunts. The new recommendation? Take them down a notch.

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes: “In high school especially, we don’t want pyramid stunts more than two people high.”

When a squad does build a pyramid, it should be supported with well-trained spotters.

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes: “Sometimes a spotter is just an extra person who is there. They have no idea how to correctly spot. So we really feel strongly that spotters should be trained how to spot correctly so they can try to prevent injuries as they’re happening.”

Better training may have made a difference for Caitlin.

Caitlin Curry: “I think it could have been better. It would have been better for me to go in knowing what I was supposed to be doing because a lot of my experience was just me trusting the girls and not having experience as a flyer.”

Experts would like to see competitive cheerleading designated as an official sport by high school athletic associations. It is here in Illinois and in 28 other states. That means participants have access to team doctors and qualified coaches.

The new safety recommendations were recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. To learn more, go to www.aap.org

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