Cheerleaders may still wear short skirts and wave pom poms when the home team scores a touchdown, but the athletic side of cheerleading has grown complex enough that doctors are calling for it to be considered a sport in order to cut down on injuries.
"Although the overall injury rate remains relatively low, cheerleading has accounted for approximately 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries in high school girl athletes over the past 25 years," says a policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatricians today in the journal Pediatrics.
Those injuries include severe sprains, broken arms and legs, neck injuries and concussions,
Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago's Lurie Children's Hospital and an author of the new policy, told The Associated Press.
Emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries have quadrupled since 1980 among girls aged 6 to 22, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Stunts including pyramid building and lifting, tossing, and catching athletes in the air account for 42 percent to 60 percent of injuries, and 96 percent of concussions, according to the AAP. That makes cheerleading stunts one of the highest risk activities for direct catastrophic injuries that can result in permanent brain injury, paralysis or death.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) does not recognize cheerleading as a sponsored sport, although 29 state high school athletic associations do. Classifying an activity as a sport ensures that athletes have qualified coaches, that practice facilities are well-maintained, that participants have access to certified athletic trainers and that they get sports physicals.
Lisa Kluchorosky, a sports medicine specialist who works with the academy and the National Athletic Trainers Association, said the statement may help counteract outdated attitudes about cheerleading not being athletic.
"The statistics are compelling and you can't turn your head from that," she told The AP.
In addition, the AAP made the following recommendations:
Cheerleaders should be trained in all spotting techniques and only attempt stunts after demonstrating appropriate skill progression.
-Pyramid and partner stunts should be performed only on a spring/foam floor or grass/turf. Never perform stunts on hard, wet or uneven surfaces. Pyramids should not be more than 2 people high.
-Coaches, parents and athletes should have access to a written emergency plan.
Any cheerleader suspected of having a head injury should be removed from practice or competition and not allowed to return until he or she has clearance from a health professional.
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