With the high school football playoffs underway, the season is over or about to be for most teams on both sides of the state line.
For the cheerleaders on the sideline, the season won't end as much as it will change – from outdoors to indoors, from cold to warm, and from relatively soft grass or rubberized track surfaces to hardwood floors.
No sport has a higher rate of catastrophic injuries for girls and women, even if the total injury rate is relatively low. In fact, they account for 2/3 of all head/neck/spine injuries among female athletes. Concerned with that number and an ongoing increase in the rate of those serious injuries, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement yesterday to coincide with its annual membership meeting in New Orleans this week.
Entitled “Cheerleading Injuries: Epidemiology and Recommendations for Prevention,” the statement includes the following key points:
*Cheerleading should be designated as a sport in all states, allowing for benefits such as qualified coaches, better access to medical care and injury surveillance. (It is in Illinois, according to the IHSA, but not in Indiana according to the IHSAA.)
*All cheerleaders should have a preseason physical, and access to qualified strength and conditioning coaches. (If cheerleaders in Indiana were regulated by the IHSAA, they would have to undergo an annual physical. The access to qualified strength and conditioning coaches would be beneficial for all athletes. They are largely absent at the high school level, regardless of sport.)
*Cheerleaders should be trained in all spotting techniques and only attempt stunts after demonstrating appropriate skill progression. (Not muscularly strong enough to lift and hold the weight of teammates repeatedly, many cheerleaders end up relying on bony structures in the low back and ultimately suffer stress fractures.)
*Pyramid and partner stunts should be performed only on a spring/foam floor or grass/turf. Never perform stunts on hard, wet or uneven surfaces. Pyramids should not be more than 2 people high. (These stunts, according to the AAP press release, account for 42 percent to 60 percent of all injuries, and 96 percent of all concussions. This recommendation doesn't just refer to practices. It includes games as well. If followed, it would mean no pyramids and partner stunts on the basketball floor during games.)
*Coaches, parents and athletes should have access to a written emergency plan. (Does your child's school have one, specific to her or his sport and venue?)
*Any cheerleader suspected of having a head injury should be removed from practice or competition and not allowed to return until he or she has clearance from a health professional. (The easiest of the recommendations to follow, it is already the law of the land in Illinois and Indiana.)
Following each of these steps is sure to to reduce the catastrophic injury rate among cheerleaders. If the 21 state high school athletic associations -- including Indiana's -- which do not classify cheerleading as a sport did so, many of the AAP's other recommendations would naturally fall into place.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.