Cheerleading Safety

This March marks National Cheerleading Safety Month. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first standardized recommendations for cheerleading safety, and more schools and youth groups are recognizing the importance of gaining certification. Cheerleading is the sport girls and young women are likeliest to be injured in and the most common injuries are to the lower extremities, making cheer safety a major area of concern for podiatrists.

Types of Injuries

Prevention is the most important aspect of sports medicine. Although cheerleading accounts for about half of all catastrophic injuries in young female athletes, the vast majority of cheerleading injuries are non-catastrophic.  Instead, the main risks are overuse and bad landings. Lack of strength and flexibility in the feet can make landings more awkward, resulting in wear and tear to the ligaments of the knees and lower back. Ankle sprains in which the ligaments are pulled inward due to landing too hard on the outside of the foot are the most common cheerleading injury. Poor landings can also contribute to stress fractures in the lower back. Female athletes who overtrain and have poor nutrition are also particularly at risk for osteoporosis.

Practice Conditions

Most injuries occur while rehearsing stunts. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that drills never be done on hard floors, and that instead they should be done on mats on floors that are springy or made of foam, or on grass. Performances or practices should also never be done in slick conditions. Coaches who have completed a course from the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators should be present during all practices and cheerleaders should be trained in spotting for the team member flying or at the top of a pyramid. The AACCA also recommends age-appropriate height restrictions on pyramids and twists while stunting.

Since cheerleading is done throughout the year, cheerleaders are at particular risk for overuse injuries.  Cheerleaders should take at least one day off per week and two months off per year, with a period to rebuild their strength upon the resumption of activity after completing a physical. Yoga, Pilates, resistance training, and gymnastics are some other activities that are recommended for increasing core and limb strength.

When an Injury Occurs

If a foot or ankle injury occurs, the standard protocol is RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with rest and elevation lasting for twenty-four hours, compression lasting for forty-eight hours, and ice being applied for ten to twenty minutes at a time. Ice should be applied every hour for the first four hours after an injury and four times a day for the next two days, but visiting a podiatrist is recommended if pain lasts for longer than that. If the cheerleader cannot walk or is in severe pain, they may need to see a podiatrist sooner. Podiatrists practicing sports medicine intend to get cheerleaders back on their feet as soon as possible, but injured athletes should not return to cheerleading until cleared to do so.

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