Once based on smiles, skirts and saddleshoes, cheerleading has become a competitive sport and with that comes injuries.
Since 1982, cheerleading and its stunts have produced more than half the catastrophic injuries female athletes suffered in high school or college, according to a catastrophic injury report surveying injuries in American sports.
The number one injury in cheerleading, other than musculo-skeletal injuries, is neurologic injury, concussions, as well as spinal injuries, said Dr. Anthony Alessi, a Norwich neurologist who's attended cheerleading competitions as event physician.
Parents should be careful about where they send their young cheerleaders to learn their sport, he said. The award-winning Central Valley Panthers in Plainville stand as an example of careful cheerleading. The girls still cartwheel and stack themselves into towers, but certified coaches are watching.
"They're landing on a spring floor," Chris Gilbert, the program director, said. "So, if they do fall and they do get hurt, I would have to say that the injury is less than what it would be if you were just on a plain mat or a hardwood floor."
She and her coaches are credentialed through the U.S. All Star Federation. The girls, ages 7 to 18, have stacks of trophies from cheerleading competitions.
"First of all," Gilbert said, "we're hands on. We teach the kids how to base and how to stunt and how to jump. Our coaches literally get in there at practices and say, 'This has to be done,' or 'You're not doing it right. This is the way it needs to be done. You need to do this.'"
The coaches know first aid, and they know what can go wrong.
"We don't really see a lot of concussions," said Gilbert, "but you will see a lot of concussion when you are in probably a level 5 or a 6, when you're literally throwing a flyer from one base to another set of bases. Obviously, a lot of things can happen."
Dr. Alessi says parents should keep three things in mind before they pay for cheerleading outfits and lessons. The gym should be certified and properly equipped, and the cheerleaders should be healthy.
"They're going to be stressed and they should have a preparticipation physical before you start for lessons," he said. "It's like any other sport."