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Docs call for cheerleading safety rules

CHICAGO -- Cheerleading isn't just jumping and waving pompoms -- it has become as athletic and potentially as dangerous as a sport and should be designated one to improve safety, the nation's leading group of pediatricians says.

The number of cheerleaders injured each year has climbed dramatically in the last two decades. Common stunts that pose risks include tossing and flipping cheerleaders in the air and creating human pyramids that reach 15 feet high or more.

In a new policy statement issued online yesterday in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics says school sports associations should designate cheerleading a sport, and make it subject to safety rules and better supervision. That would include on-site athletic trainers, limits on practice time and better qualified coaches, the academy says.

Like other athletes, cheerleaders should be required to do conditioning exercises and undergo physical exams before joining the squad, the new policy says.

"Not everyone is fully aware of how cheerleading has evolved . . . It used to be just standing on the sidelines and doing cheers and maybe a few jumps," said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago and an author of the new policy.

Last year, there were 37,000 emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries among girls aged 6 to 22, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's more than four times higher than in 1980, when cheerleading was tamer.

Kali Wald, 18, of Elburn, Ill., had a serious concussion last year during an acrobatic routine with her high school's competitive team; teammates tossed her in the air but she landed wrong twice, first on her upper back and neck, then on her head. She blacked out for several minutes.

Her father, Dave Wald, said her coaches didn't realize she was seriously injured and did not call an ambulance. She has short-term memory loss and can't attend school full-time because of dizziness, headaches and other concussion symptoms.

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Injuries have increased as cheerleading has become more popular. Data suggest there are more than 3 million cheerleaders nationwide aged 6 and older, mostly girls. That includes about 400,000 in high school, according to data cited in the new policy.

While the overall injury rate in high school cheerleading is lower than in other girls' sports, including gymnastics, soccer and field hockey, the rate of catastrophic injuries like skull fractures and paralyzing spine injuries is higher, the academy noted.

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