August signals the start of the school year and fall sports season for many students. In recognition, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) has focused its annual Neurosurgery Outreach Month on injury prevention in football and cheerleading. In recent years, potentially devastating head and spinal cord injuries have been associated with these all-American sports.
The AANS cited 300,000 football-related concussions annually in the United States, with approximately one-sixth of these injuries serious enough to be treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009. Public awareness about head injuries and concussions resulting from playing football has grown over the past few years, as well as being the subject of Congressional hearings. However, there is less public awareness about the neurological injuries associated with cheerleading. While these injuries may be less prevalent, they can be just as devastating.
While the term ‘cheerleading’ was once used to describe the cheering on of athletes, the sport has changed drastically over the last two decades to become a highly acrobatic sport. The majority (96%) of the reported concussions and closed-head injuries were preceded by the cheerleader performing a stunt. Restrictions have been placed on stunts to help ensure cheerleaders’ safety, and experts agree that cheerleaders should be given proper training with supervision provided during all stunts.
For football players, experts recommend several tips to prevent head and neck injuries:
- All players should receive a pre-season physical exam.
- Players should receive adequate preconditioning and strengthening of the head and neck muscles.
- Coaches, physicians, and trainers should ensure the players’ equipment is properly fitted, especially the helmet, and that the straps are always locked.
- Ball carriers should be taught not to lower their heads when making contact with the tackler to avoid helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Recent studies on the cumulative effects of concussions in high school athletes have shown that even mild concussions can result in serious long-term problems, particularly if an athlete is allowed to return to play too early or if they have a history of concussions or other head injuries. For this reason, it is imperative that student athletes, coaches, and parents take every precaution to ensure the safety of those taking part in the sporting activities.