When Stunts Go Wrong: Concussions in Cheerleading

There’s no doubt about it—cheerleaders are athletes, and constantly face the risk of enduring a sports concussion. Whether tumbling or stunting, cheerleaders constantly put their bodies at risk of injury. 

It’s estimated that there are up to 3.8 million traumatic brain injuries each year in the US. Many of these injuries come from sport and recreational activities, and more than a fifth of the traumatic brain injuries sustained in the US each year come from kids and teenagers.  

Rates of Sports Concussion in Cheerleading

While American football continues to bring in the most sports concussions in the United States, many studies agree that cheerleading is just behind the rough-and-tumble tackle sport.

The intricate performances in which cheerleaders lift one another into the air are known as stunts. The flyer—the person being lifted off the ground—may sustain a concussion in the event of the fall, but the person in the air isn’t the only one at risk for a traumatic brain injury. Bases—the cheerleaders who lift the flyer off of the ground—can get kicked or hit in the event that the flyer falls, resulting in injury. 

Cheerleaders who tumble across the field or court are also at risk of a sports concussion in the event that they fall. While both girls and boys can sustain concussions, girls are more susceptible. Female children and adolescents have looser ligaments and longer necks than boys, which can cause the had to snap back quickly in response to an unexpected force.

How Cheerleading Handles Concussions

Like many professional sports organizations, USA Cheer has developed guidelines to help cheerleaders and coaches recognize and appropriately treat concussions. 

The organization insists that any cheerleader showing signs of a concussion needs to be removed from performance, competition, or practice until they’ve been evaluated by a medical professional and have been cleared to return to cheerleading. 

In addition to creating a standard protocol for the treatment of concussions, USA Cheer has also created a pre-concussion protocol, designed to prepare coaches, cheerleaders, and athletic treatment teams to recognize and properly care for concussions. USA Cheer recommends that all cheerleaders should have an annual physical before the start of the season and that cheerleaders should participate in pre-season baseline testing if such testing is accessible. The organization also recommends that every cheerleading squad should have a trainer or physician who works with cheerleaders who have sustained possible concussions or other head injuries. 

Signs of a Sports Concussion: What Parents Need to Know

It’s important that parents, coaches, and cheerleaders are on high alert for signs of a sports concussion

Signs that a cheerleader may have sustained a concussion can include: 

  • Problems with memory
  • Difficulty concentrating, including struggling to follow along with previously well-known routines
  • Changes in sleep patterns, including both sleeping too much and sleeping too little
  • Feeling foggy, struggling to remember standard information
  • Issues with dizziness and balance
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Unsure of surroundings (difficulty following the sport for which they’re cheering, struggling to remember their place in a routine)
  • Behaviour or personality changes

It’s important that cheerleaders who are showing symptoms of a concussion are evaluated by a medical professional. Untreated concussions can lead to long-term complications that can be difficult to treat.

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