Unsurprisingly, brain and spinal cord injuries in sports most often occur in football. It is a little-known fact that cheerleading causes the second highest school sports rate of permanent brain injury, severe head injury, spinal cord contusions and death.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research tracks severe and fatal injuries related to organized high school and collegiate sports in the U.S. Ways to prevent these devastating injuries come from their data analytics. Information collected from fall 1982 through spring 2017 revealed that 65 percent of all high school females involved in athletic cheerleading suffered catastrophic injuries, second only to male football injuries. Over 70 percent of catastrophic injuries to all female athletes involved college cheerleading, a rate five times higher than that for high school cheerleading.
The excessive rate of brain injury in cheerleading
The disproportionate rate of catastrophic injury that occurs in cheerleading is higher than all other female sports injuries combined. The 2017 annual meeting of The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine prominently featured cheerleading head and cervical spine injuries. Members also discussed the mechanism of injury and risk factors.
Mechanisms of direct injury in cheerleading stunts
As a sport, cheerleading has evolved from innocent team support on game nights to a contact sport in its own right. Cheerleaders no longer build school spirit through cheers and simple pompom routines. Today, many activities require a high level of gymnastic ability. Stunts can involve several team members who must act together with precision timing as a single unit. Team members throw flyers up to 20 feet in the air. Untrained or incorrectly trained athletes too often perform dangerous stunts such as pyramid formations and basket throws. Cheerleaders require expert training in strength, agility, stunting, tumbling and air throws.
Spinal cord injuries can cause both complete and incomplete injuries. Cheerleaders can be victims of partial or full quadriplegia. Emotional trauma is equally devastating in a young person dealing with paralysis. Brain injury can be direct or evolve through a series of repeated concussions with inadequate healing time in between.
Requirements for safety training and brain injury prevention
To improve safety, cheerleaders need spring-loaded practice floors in school gyms, a team of professional coaches specifically trained in cheerleading, and coach supervision before and during performances. Strong, experienced spotters minimize fall injuries. Cheerleading teams should have immediate access to emergency medical personnel and on-site rescue vehicles during performances, particularly on hard surfaces. Many schools do not understand the sport’s dangers; they often do not raise funds to provide the necessary safety measures.