Cheerleading, often involving complex gymnastics routines, accounts for most sports-related deaths and serious injuries to young American females.
The University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research turned up some surprising results when it started to study female sports injuries over the past 25 years. "By looking at all female sports, cheerleading came up more and more and, actually, cheerleading was involved in 65% of the high school cheerleading catastrophic injuries and 70% of the college cheerleading injuries," said the study's author, Dr. Franklin Mueller, the National Center Director in Chapel Hill.
The National Center's 26th annual report shows the number of catastrophic injuries growing. "We had two or three deaths, mostly head and neck injuries, fractured skulls, fractured cervical vertebrae, or fractured necks," said Mueller, "with permanent paralysis, head injuries with permanent brain damage."
Cheerleading routines have changed over the years from traditional pom-poms and dance moves to more gymnastic stunts. "Throwing a person called 'the flyer' seven meters in the air, and that individual is doing twists and turns," Mueller explained, "and, then, she's supposed to be caught by three or four people at the base, so it's gotten more dangerous."
Safety solutions are available and seem to be improving. Cheerleading is only considered a sport in half the high schools in the United States. The National Collegiate Athletic Association does not consider it a sport at all.
Once it receives official sports status, says Mueller, certain guidelines will become part of the program, including an athletic trainer, good medical coverage, fitness requirements and avoiding the use of hard surfaces for practice.