From acrobatic stunts to mid-air tosses, cheerleading has increasingly been labeled one of the most dangerous athletic activities for young people. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a set of guidelines for coaches, parents and school officials in an attempt to prevent injuries.
"We've recently been seeing an increase in the number of cheerleading injuries," said Dr. Jeffrey Mjaanes, co-author of the AAP guidelines. "There's been a huge increase in the number of participants so it's logical that the number of injuries will also increase. So we presented these guidelines to get it under control and hopefully decrease the growing number of injuries."
One of the main concerns is that although so many high schools and colleges have cheerleading squads, few of them consider cheerleading a sport. And without that classification, cheerleading is not subject to the same rules and regulations as activities that are officially considered sports.
"In many states and areas, cheerleading is not considered a sanctioned sport. It's often more of a club sport," Mjaanes said. "When an activity is considered a club sport instead of a sanctioned sport, it tends to get a little haphazard in terms of coaching qualifications, safety nets, facility adequacy. So we're trying to encourage state schools to make cheerleading a sanctioned sport to increase acceptability to good medical care, qualified coaches, adequate facilities and injury surveillance."
The AAP is also urging schools to take precautionary measures such as limits on the height of pyramid formations and surfaces where stunts can be performed. It also recommends pre-season physicals and better training.
"The injuries that are the most common are ankle and knee sprains but we're most concerned about catastrophic injuries, usually involving the head or neck," Dr. Mjaanes said. "The average is only about five a year so it's uncommon but absolutely devastating for the athlete who suffers them. We're trying to decrease that rate. And those tend to occur in the stunts, pyramids."