Cheerleading Accounts for Most Catastrophic High School Injuries

With breakneck stunting and gymnastics, be sure your child’s squad is safe.

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Not long ago, my colleague (and former gymnast) Lindsay Lyon wrote about the dangers of gymnastics, a sport that's responsible for sending hundreds of kids to the emergency room each year. Well, Lindsay, I've got you beat. This week, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research released a study announcing that my former sport, cheerleading, is the most dangerous, accounting for 65.1 percent of all catastrophic sports injuries among high school girls in the past 25 years.

Cheerleading, a sport? If you've seen competitive cheerleading recently, you would have no doubt in your mind that these girls (and guys) are every bit the athlete—and carry much more of the risk for devastating injury. What started out as a pre-feminist rah-rah pep club has turned into a competitive blend of gymnastics, dance, weightlifting, and Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. Cheerleaders don't date the captains of football teams anymore—they're too busy weight training, so they can throw their teammates into the air for a double backflip.

I cheered for six years through middle school, high school, and briefly in college, as well as on a nationally competitive all-star team comprised of the best girls and guys in my city. Naturally, I saw my share of injuries. As a flyer, the person who gets lifted into the air for stunts—also known to my worry-stricken mother as "the human cannonball"—I loved the adrenaline rush of performing the types of stunts and gymnastics that could make everyone in the stands gasp. Some of the stunts in my repertoire included the basket-toss, where my teammates would catapult me 20 feet into the air for a flip or a twist, and the scorpion, where I'd stand on one foot with my other leg bent backwards to my head, supported by three or four girls underneath. The standing part was fine. Getting down from these stunts, though, is the part where I could have become part of the latest statistics.

At a competition with my high school squad during my senior year, we were warming up on some practice mats, when I lost my balance atop the pyramid. I came down hard, and the girls underneath weren't able to catch me. I slammed my head and neck into the thin practice mat so hard that I saw stars.

In most other sports, this would be enough to get you sidelined. A problem with cheerleading, though—and a reason that the injury rate is so high—is that there are no alternates or second-string players around to step in on most teams. And without every member present, a squad can't perform. Therefore, girls are encouraged to compete injured in the name of "teamwork," immobilizing wrists and ankles and backs with braces and tape before they hit the floor, playing through their pain. So that's precisely what I did.

Somehow, I managed to get through the whole routine, and stuck every stunt. When I got off the floor, my mom, who saw my fall from the stands, told me that she thought I had a concussion, and that we were going to the ER. I was the only person in the waiting room wearing a short-skirted uniform, hair ribbon, and glittery makeup. After just a few minutes, I was ushered in for X-rays. I learned, fortunately, that I didn't have a concussion—though I did have a pretty good case of whiplash. I had to wear a neck brace for several weeks, which, as you can imagine, was great for my high school social life, captain of the cheerleading squad or not.

Of course I'm lucky. Of the 103 fatal or disabling injuries sustained by female high school athletes in the new study, 67 were cheerleaders. Gymnastics comes in second place, with a mere nine; track is third with seven deaths. Cheerleaders die of spinal cord injuries and severe concussions, falling from stunts, or falling during gymnastic flips. In one recent case, a Boston girl was accidentally kicked in the chest during a stunt, causing her lungs to collapse.

Beyond catastrophic injuries, many cheerleaders experiences sprains, tears, or breaks. Knee braces were practically a part of our uniform. I broke three fingers over the course of six years. I also accidentally broke another girl's nose when a stunt went awry (for the millionth time, Anne, I'm sorry!). Worse still, I saw cheerleaders in competitions sustain devastating injuries—blowing out an ACL, or breaking an ankle in the middle of a routine—and keep going, hopping through dance routines on one foot, and collapsing as soon as the music was done. One particularly gruesome video we were shown as an example of teamwork involved an unfortunate girl who had several of her teeth elbowed right out of her mouth in the middle of a routine. She finished the routine before scooping up the teeth.

There are ways that cheerleaders can protect themselves, though - and precautions that parents can take. See this list of 5 tips for keeping a cheerleader healthy and safe.