When most people think of sports injuries, they imagine the gruesome hits a football player takes, or the occasional awkward fall a basketball athlete experiences.  What they may not think of is cheerleading. For female athletes, though, cheerleading is by far the most dangerous athletic competition there is, accounting for the majority of catastrophic accidents among high school and college women.  A 2012 report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that nearly 70 percent of all catastrophic accidents among female athletes occur during cheerleading.

How dangerous is cheerleading?

Cheerleaders are often thought of as performers only, but complex routines can involve a dizzying array of flips, tumbles and other maneuvers.  When performed on a hard surface, such as a basketball court or artificial turf field, a single miscue can result in a major accident.

More than 20,000 cheerleaders end up in the emergency room every year after suffering serious harm during a routine.  Some of these accidents can be treated fairly easily, but many may cause long term or permanent harm to the athlete.  For example, damage to the spinal cord may cause paralysis or loss of body function.

What are traumatic brain injuries?

Some sports injuries cause trauma to the brain, resulting in what are known as TBIs.  These accidents are caused by external mechanical forces like accelerating or decelerating quickly or sudden impacts. It is difficult to track the damage TBIs can cause, as the damage can either be throughout the brain, or confined to a small area.  MRI and CT scans are needed to track the extent of the TBI.  Lesions, lacerations, edema (swelling) and hematoma (collection of blood) are all common features of a TBI.

Symptoms depend on the area of the brain affected, but severe TBIs can cause loss of consciousness, speech disorders, mood or behavioral changes, convulsions, vomiting or nausea, cognitive changes, numbing of the limbs and loss of coordination.  These effects are often long-term and may have a far-reaching impact on a person’s ability to function.

The prognosis for moderate or severe TBIs is not good.  Permanent disability is present in 66 percent of people who suffer a moderate TBI and present in 100 percent of people who suffer a severe TBI.

Who is responsible for cheerleading accidents?

All college sports are regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA
.  Some of these regulations concern the safety of athletes, so teams are closely monitored for any lapses in athlete safety.  Cheerleading, though, is not considered a sport by the NCAA and most schools and colleges.  This means that the safety regulations are often lax and poorly enforced.

The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, or AACCA, is working to fix this, but the AACCA’s power is limited, as it does not have the capacity to enforce safety guidelines like most oversight agencies have.  In short, there is no organization dedicated to reducing the number of sports injuries cheerleaders suffer every year, so these athletes are often put at risk.

If an athlete is hurt while performing, the school or coach should be held accountable if the accident were preventable.  Accident victims often have a long road to recovery, and many will require medical treatment for the rest of their lives.  Anyone harmed during an athletic event should consider speaking with an attorney for a consultation regarding their options for compensation.