The rising risk of cheerleading
Highland High School cheerleader Sahar Talebreza never dreamed she'd have to leave a basketball game in an ambulance. "I laid on the ground for a while," she said. "It was pretty scary."
During a halftime routine a year ago, Talebreza balanced in the hands of a male cheerleader who held her at shoulder level. Before she could complete her stunt she tipped perilously backward.
Her spotter didn't catch her.
Talebreza went crashing down.
"I didn't really know where I was for a little while," she said. "I went into shock and they were trying to calm me down. Our trainer said: 'You've fallen, you've gotten hurt.' Everyone huddled around me."
Talebreza was lucky her injuries weren't more serious. She broke her tailbone and suffered muscle spasms in her neck, but made a full recovery.
Others aren't as lucky.
A new study by the Columbus Children's Research Institute found the injury rate among cheerleaders has shot up drastically.
The study looked at boys and girls age 5 to 18. Researchers found that from 1990 and 2002, approximately 209,000 children in the U.S. were treated in hospital emergency rooms for cheerleading-related injuries. The number of injuries increased 110 percent during that time, while the number of girls participating in cheerleading increased by only 18 percent.
Most injuries were relatively minor: strains, sprains, and bruising; the next most common were fractures and dislocations. Lacerations and head injuries were rare. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, there were 42 catastrophic, or severe, injuries among high school and college cheerleaders between 1982 and 2002. Two of them were fatal.
The increase in the injury rate doesn't surprise Joyce Soprano, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
"The incidence of injury in cheerleaders isn't necessarily higher than in other sports," Soprano said. She added the study's results shouldn't discourage parents from allowing their kids to participate in cheerleading.
"It's good for kids to participate in sports. It makes them healthier and decreases their risk for obesity," she said. "All sports have injuries related to them. Kids who play soccer get injured."
According to the study, one reason for the increase in injuries is that cheerleading has become more competitive - raising the stakes and the risks.
"It's become more than standing on the sidelines with pompoms," said Claudia Bellamy, cheerleading coach at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. "It's become a sport. The kids have to be so athletic. They work so hard."
The study found the change from previous cheerleading styles to more gymnastic skills also contributed to the increase.
"They're trying harder and harder skills and moves," Soprano said. "To be more competitive, people try to do things harder, faster and taller."
The pyramid and the basket toss, where two cheerleaders toss a "flyer" into the air and a spotter stands at her head and neck, held the highest risk of catastrophic injury.
Makenzie Kilpatrick, head cheerleader at Highland, got a black eye during practice for a competition when another cheerleader fell wrong and elbowed her in the nose. Still, Kilpatrick loves being a cheerleader and says it's worth the risks.
"If you put yourself in some sort of athletic situation, injuries are going to happen," Kilpatrick said. "If everyone knows exactly what they're doing, then the risks are a lot lower."
The study recommends cheerleaders adopt a universally enforced set of rules and regulations, and that cheerleading coaches be required to complete a safety training certification program.
Bellamy supports the recommendations. "We have had two serious injuries that have required a hospital visit. Both of those times the kids were not doing what they were trained to do. The spotter wasn't there." Bellamy received her training at the U., with the National Federation of Cheer Coaches and the Universal Cheerleading Association.
She says she supervises every practice, makes sure her squad always uses mats and spotters, and approves every stunt in practice before it's performed in a game or competition. At competitions, she says she sees cheerleaders from other schools not taking proper precautions.
"Stunting is not so much a thing of strength and ability. It's technique. If you move your hand to a certain position, or if your back spot moves in a little, it makes the stunt that much safer. If you're not trained, you don't know those things. Then it becomes dangerous."
Soprano recommends parents ask the tough questions of their kids' cheerleading coaches such as: Is their safety training up to par? Do they supervise practices and always use mats and spotters?
"If more parents start asking these questions, it will help the schools look at their safety measures and make sure they're in line with the recommendations and help prevent those catastrophic injuries."
After breaking her tailbone and straining her neck, Talebreza wore a neck brace for a week and a half and sat on a doughnut-shaped pillow for two months. But she recovered in time to participate in a competition two months later.
"I love being thrown in the air and being caught," she said. "It's fun to promote the spirit of Highland and have fun. You fall every once in a while. But, it's like, you have to get back up."
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Adopt a universally enforced set of rules.
l Always use mats and spotters when doing pyramids and stunts.
l Require cheerleading coaches to have proper safety training.
l Make sure coaches supervise practices, games and competitions.
l Reserve the pyramid and basket toss for only highly skilled gymnasts.
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