Concussions have received tremendous attention in football in recent years. These brain injuries occur in other sports as well. In fact, girls’ soccer has the second highest rate of concussions among a variety of sports in most studies.
Add cheerleading to the list of sports in which female athletes need to recognize the dangers of concussions.
While cheerleading does not have concussion rates as high as girls’ soccer, basketball and lacrosse, its concussion rates have jumped remarkably in recent years. From 1998 to 2008, concussions in cheerleading increased by an average of 26% per year, faster than any other girls’ sport.
More worrisome than the rise in concussions could be the fact that cheerleaders, like athletes in other sports, often fail to report concussion symptoms.
Do cheerleaders admit to having concussion symptoms?
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that cheerleaders often don’t recognize symptoms of concussions or fail to report them. Mark R. Lovell, PhD and Gary S. Solomon, PhD studied 138 junior and senior high school cheerleaders who had previously completed baseline ImPACT testing and later suffered concussions. After suffering a concussion, each cheerleader completed a follow-up ImPACT test within seven days of injury. They also collected data on symptoms, as reported by the athletes, for 22 concussion symptoms such as headaches, nausea and difficulty sleeping.
Among cheerleaders who had an abnormal findings on at least one component of the ImPACT testing (verbal memory, visual memory, processing speed, reaction time), only 62% reported a significant increase in symptoms. 36% of the cheerleaders did not report any increase in symptoms at all.
Take-home points and concussions in cheerleaders
It would be easy to conclude that cheerleaders, like athletes in other sports, will deny concussion symptoms in order to return to sports quickly. That possibility is very real in cheerleading too. It is also plausible that these cheerleaders are either unaware of their symptoms or don’t recognize the importance of them.
I would emphasize that the decision to return an athlete to cheerleading after a concussion is a serious one, and the decision should not be based solely on a cheerleader reporting her symptoms to her coach, doctor or athletic trainer. Preseason baseline testing, and follow-up neurocognitive testing, is just as important for these athletes as it is for athletes in collision sports like football. Having them evaluated by concussion specialists, like sports neurologists, after injuries would be ideal as well. And educating athletes, parents and coaches on the incidence of concussions, the signs and symptoms of these brain injuries, and their long-term effects, should be done at every level of cheerleading.
Lovell MR, Solomon GS. Neurocognitive Test Performance and Symptom Reporting in Cheerleaders with Concussions. Pediatrics. 2013;163:1192-1195.
American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness . Policy statement. Cheerleading injuries: epidemiology and recommendations for prevention. Pediatrics. 2012;130:966–971