Cheerleading May Be Riskier Than Thought

Cheerleading accidents may be responsible for a greater percentage of injuries among high school and college athletes than previously thought, according to an updated report on catastrophic injuries released last week.

Frederick Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury in Chapel Hill, N.C., and lead author of the report, says additional catastrophic injury reports from the National Cheer Safety Foundation, when factored into his original figures, suggest that during the periods 1982-83 and 2006-07, 65.1 percent of all female high school sports catastrophic injuries and 66.7 percent of all college female sports catastrophic injuries are directly attributable to cheerleading.

Catastrophic injuries, as defined in Mueller's report, are those that range in severity from serious fractures to paralysis and death.

These serious injuries, Mueller says, often go unreported. And he says that because there are no established regulations for reporting cheerleading injuries, the number of these injuries directly attributable to cheerleading could be even higher.

"What [the report] tells us is that data collection for these injuries is difficult and that we may not be getting all of the cases that are out there," he said. "Cheerleading organizations need to take a serious look at this and make some important changes."

Not everyone agrees with Mueller's figures. Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, contends that the participation figures in Mueller's report are far too low, and that this in turn makes catastrophic cheerleading injuries appear much more common.

"I think participation numbers are certainly higher," he said. "I think the injuries per 1,000 participants is lower than what is in the study."

Plus, he says that additional safety measures have made cheerleading safer than in years past.

"Over the last five years, we have seen a major change in safety awareness out there," he said. "We have also made, probably in the last two to three years, significant changes to safety rules that prohibit certain skills to be done on certain surfaces, such as basketball courts."

"From what we have seen, we have found that this has had an effect."

But others say the report brings to the forefront the continuing safety issues associated with the activity.

Kimberly Archie, executive director and founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, says that the fact that cheerleading is not regulated in the same way as high school and college sports creates a situation in which many injuries -- even catastrophic ones -- are never reported or recorded.

"Dr. Mueller's report only covers high school and college kids during the school year," she said. "If it happens in a summer camp, it is not on Dr. Mueller's report."

And she agrees with Mueller that the number of young athletes sustaining major injuries through cheerleading may be much higher than even the figures in the revised report.

"According to these numbers, 1 in 30,000 kids is going to have a catastrophic injury from cheerleading," Archie said. "And these injuries are not, 'Oh, Susie fell and now her back hurts.' These are dramatic and serious injuries."

"If anything, there are even more injuries... more like one in 10,000."

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