SHENENDEHOWA, N.Y. - Concussions are on the radar of any parent of an athlete, especially for sports such as football, but the dangers of high-flying cheerleaders are just as real.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, over a 10-year period, concussion rates in cheerleading have increased by 26 percent each year.
A local pediatrician said concussions can be difficult to notice because people don't have to be unconscious to have one.
One local mother, Joanna Hart, constantly watches out for her daughter's safety as she cheers for the Shenendehowa football team. Hart becomes focused when 16-year-old Darienne Hickey's feet come off the ground to perform a stunt.
Dr. Michael Looney of Delmar Pediatrics said many factors determine how dangerous cheerleading is as a sport.
"If you look at sports," he said, "cheerleading has the lowest incidents overall of injuries in girls' sports, but they have the highest rate of catastrophic injuries in any sport for women."
Dr. Looney said a concussion is very different from breaking a bone because of the potential long-lasting effects.
"The potential is there in terms of people having difficulty cognitively, where their own IQ is decreased significantly," he said. "People have motor difficulties that occur lifelong, people have speech difficulties that occur lifelong, problem solving, memory skills can be affected lifelong. Those are all things that can occur life-long with these kids."
Shenendehowa Varsity Cheerleading coaches Lauren Berger and Sharon Figel said their team spends hours practicing every week just like any other sport. Those hours transcend into big performances and some big stunts.
Every cheerleading coach in the Shenendehowa School District is required to be certified in concussion training. Berger and Figel said they make it a priority to prevent concussions.
Dr. Looney said because cheerleading is not recognized as a sport, long-term studies of data are not collected in a uniform way. However, he does say the type of floor underneath cheerleaders make a tremendous difference in the severity of injuries.
Berger said the Suburban Council rules no cheerleader can do a single stunt or tumbling routine without their feet on mats.
"When I was in high school, we practiced with mats, but never went to games with mats," Figel said. "Now we can't do anything without mats."
"The girls and boys on our squad don't know any different," Berger added. "If there are no mats, they know nothing is going up. The mats provide a safe foundation, but it's really the skills they need to know in order to be safe."
Hickey has been cheerleading since the first grade, and when she was nine-years-old she fell, but did not suffer a concussion.
"There was not a mat there, so when she was stunting, not even flying, she fell back and fell on her head," Hart said. "Luckily, she was fine, but that's the only scare I've had."
"It has freaked me out since," Hickey said. "Sometimes I try to avoid doing that certain stunt, but you have to think, you can trust everyone underneath you."
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