Cheerleading has gained a reputation as a dangerous sport, thanks to its high-flying and high-risk maneuvers and the increasingly competitive spirit of the sport. Bruises and fractures are common, but a new U.S. study shows the most common injury in the sport is concussion.
Overall, cheerleading still ranks near the bottom of high school sports in terms of overall injury rate – with contact sports such as basketball, soccer, and hockey ranking highest – according to the new study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
“Anecdotally, it’s pretty clear to most people over the past few decades that cheerleading has shifted from a sideline activity to a competitive sport itself. This may have resulted in an increase in injury,” said study author Dustin Currie, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“We only have five years of data … but I don’t know whether to say it’s better for cheerleading to not become a more competitive sport,” he added. “If it’s getting more children to participate in athletics, it’s probably a net positive.”
Estimates from the U.S. National Federation of State High School Associations suggest around 400,000 students in the U.S. participate in high school cheerleading every year. That includes over 123,000 participating in competitive “spirit squads” which incorporate more risky stunts, pyramids, tosses, and jumps.
This study is the first to include cheerleading in a comparison of injury rates in high school sports. By using a large national sports injury database, Currie and his team saw that, despite an overall low injury rate within cheerleading compared to other sports, the injuries experienced in cheerleading are often more severe.
The report shows cheerleading was second to gymnastics in the percentage of injuries resulting in an athlete being benched for at least three weeks.
Within cheerleading, concussions were the most common injury, accounting for 31 percent of all injuries, however concussion rates were significantly lower in cheerleading compared to all other sports combined.
“There’s been a pretty strong rise in concussion rates over the last decade in pretty much all high school sports,” Currie said. “I think that’s partially due to the increased awareness and diagnosis of concussions occurring. So I wouldn’t say I’m surprised … and the more important thing to point out is that concussion rates are still lower in cheerleading than other sports.”
The majority of cheerleading injuries occurred during stunts, with pyramid formations accounting for 16 percent and tumbling making up 9 percent of injuries. Most of the concussions related to these practices resulted from contact with another person, usually an elbow.
Cheerleaders at the base of the formation for stunts and pyramids were also most likely to get injured, constituting 46 percent of all injuries. Fliers accounted for 36 percent, followed by spotters with 10 percent.
Currie said the best way to potentially reduce severe injuries like concussions in cheerleading would be for all states to recognize cheerleading as a sport and recognize that the “vast majority of high school cheerleaders are athletes,” requiring the support of athletic trainers and other appropriate medical staff.
“States need to think about it in terms of cheerleaders being athletes, as they are now, rather than some recreational activity on the sidelines,” he said.