USF Sports Medicine offers tips for cheerleader safety

Tampa, FL (Oct. 5, 2007) — It’s not your grandmother’s cheerleading squad! Today’s cheerleaders do more than shout and wave pom poms from the sidelines – particularly at the high school and collegiate levels where cheerleading camps and national competitions have become commonplace. Competitors need strength, grace and agility to execute precisely choreographed jumps, handsprings, cartwheels and flips.

“Modern cheerleading is nothing like decades ago,” said Robert Pedowitz, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at USF Health. “It’s evolved into a more physically demanding, gymnastic and moderately high-risk activity because of some of the higher-altitude maneuvers like cheerleaders being thrown into the air and building pyramids.”

One highly referenced study, using statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, reports that cheerleading injuries in children ages 5 to 18 more than doubled between 1990 and 2002. In fact, compared to other sports like football, basketball, baseball and even soccer, cheerleading has a relatively low risk of injury, said Jeff Konin, PhD, ATC, PT, executive director of the Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma (SMART) Institute at USF. But, nationally, the number of youngsters competing year-round has increased and the drive to excel continues to bump up the complexity of cheerleading stunts, Dr. Konin said. “When you start combining more participants with more difficult stunts, you just hope level of cheerleader supervision and safety enforcement is improving, but that’s not necessarily happening.”

The most common cheerleader injuries are similar to those seen in gymnasts and dancers, including bruises, ankle and knee injuries, and wrist and hand pain, Dr. Pedowitz said. Head and neck injuries are rare, but can be catastrophic when they occur.

“Because there is a greater chance for sports injuries among competitive cheerleaders, we need to find ways to reduce that risk through appropriate rules, increased training in proper techniques and sufficient supervision,” Dr. Pedowitz said.

USF SMART, which has already taught its PREPARE sports safety course to hundreds of Tampa Bay area coaches and parents supervising school and recreational football teams, is developing training modules for other youth sports, including cheerleading. Certified athletic trainers from SMART provided medical coverage Oct. 6 at the Police Athletic League’s cheerleading competition in Pasco County. More than 270 girls, ages 5 to 16, from PAL leagues in three counties were expected to compete in the Zephyrhills High School gymnasium.

As part of its injury-prevention efforts, SMART offers the following recommendations for avoiding cheerleading injuries:

• Safety training and certification, such as that offered by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors (AACCA), should be required of all cheerleading coaches and advisors.

• Cheerleading practice should take place on a forgiving landing surface like grass or floor mats, not concrete.

• Coaches and parents should make sure that the activities/stunts are appropriate for the skill level of the youngsters involved and that cheerleaders have completed proper strength and balance conditioning before progressing to new routines.

• All squads should receive thorough training in spotting techniques, and coaches should review and supervise all stunts.

– USF Health –

USF Health is dedicated to creating a model of health care based on understanding the full spectrum of health. It includes the University of South Florida’s colleges of medicine, nursing, and public health; the schools of biomedical sciences as well as physical therapy & rehabilitation sciences; and the USF Physicians Group. With $308 million in research funding last year, USF is one of the nation’s top 63 public research universities and one of Florida’s top three research universities.