Serious Cheerleading Injuries On the Rise Due to Dangerous Stunts

Cheerleader standing on other cheerleaders

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When you think of cheerleading, you probably don't think of it as a dangerous sport. But cheerleading is no longer a pep squad team that leads cheers from the sidelines. Cheerleading has become a competitive sport, and the cheers have developed into highly acrobatic and gymnastic moves with a higher degree of risk and difficulty. 

This increase in risky cheerleading stunts makes cheerleading one of the most dangerous sports for women and girls. In fact, according to the data, the number of serious and catastrophic head and neck injuries from failed acrobatic cheerleading stunts are increasing every year.

Most cheers now involve complicated choreography that includes tossing people into the air, back-flips, tall human pyramids, and other dramatic and risky acrobatic stunts. These moves require precision, timing and hours of practice with a skilled coach.

Unfortunately, not all cheerleading squads have the necessary equipment, budget, or adequate supervision by a coach trained in acrobatics and gymnastics. Standards for coaching cheerleading are not yet uniform. In some high schools and colleges, this may mean the coach is a former cheerleader or a parent, rather than a trained gymnastics instructor.

Cheerleading Injury Statistics

The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research started collecting data in 1982, and the 2017 report ranked cheerleading as the number one cause of catastrophic injuries in female athletes. Approximately 66% of all catastrophic injuries in either high school or college female athletes occur due to cheerleading accidents.

Cheerleading has resulted in one death per year, on average, from 1991 to 2015. The annual cheerleading injury rate almost doubled from 2001 to 2012.

Astonishingly, cheerleading at the college level was associated with 70.5% of all catastrophic injuries in female sports for the entire 35 years of data collection. After cheerleading, sports with notably high numbers of serious injuries to female athletes include gymnastics, track, field hockey, and lacrosse.

Common Cheerleading Injuries

While most cheerleading injuries are typical of high school and college athletes in any sport and include muscle strains and strains or injuries to the ligaments, the number of severe or catastrophic cheerleading injuries is on the rise. Serious or catastrophic injuries to female athletes include:

  • Head injuries: Cheerleading is a leading cause of head injury in girls and women who play sports. Parents and coaches should learn about the warning signs of a brain injury, including sports concussions and epidural hematoma.
  • Concussions: Concussion is a very common head injury that is receiving far more attention due to the spotlight on NFL players. The cumulative effects of concussion have also been linked to depression and cognitive defects later in life and is not something to be taken lightly. All parents and coaches should learn about the early signs of concussion, including first aid, assessment, and testing, as well as late symptoms.
  • Neck (cervical) injuries: Cheerleaders are at higher risk than many athletes for neck fractures, particularly when participating in flips and tossing one another into the air on a hard sports court. One misstep or poorly timed catch and a serious neck injury could be disastrous for an athlete. Even less traumatic neck injuries, including whiplash and sprains, can sideline a cheerleader for the season.
  • Skull fractures: A skull fracture is a serious injury that requires immediate emergency treatment. 
  • Fractures: Broken bones can happen with any fall or unnatural movement, as are common in cheerleading stunts gone wrong.

Safety Tips and Precautions for Cheerleading Teams

Because today's cheerleading stunts require a high degree of skill in gymnastics and acrobatics, it's important to have appropriate instruction and coaching. Here are some ways to stay safe.

  • Make sure the cheerleading coach is highly skilled in gymnastics or acrobatics safety training.
  • Check that the coach is also certified in first aid and CPR.
  • Only practice in a designated practice area with adequate padding, mats, cushioning or a spring-loaded floor or gymnasium.
  • Never attempt risky moves without supervision and trained spotters.
  • Cheerleading injury data is currently being collected. Report cheerleading injury information at the National Cheer Safety Foundation's website.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.