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Common Gymnastics and Cheerleading Injuries

Gymnasts suffer a multitude of injuries and have the highest injury rate of all athletes, including football players. Cheerleaders perform many of the same activities and therefore suffer similar injuries. Both sports require strength, balance, timing, and extreme flexibility.

Cheerleaders and Gymnasts are likely to pull or tear muscles nearly anywhere in the body, due to the stresses of sudden, explosive movements. The standard treatment applies: Rest and ice the muscle, keeping it wrapped and elevated for a few days. Then start an early stretching program to re-lengthen the muscle.

While you rehabilitate a muscle, you should stretch six to eight times a day. Stretch the muscle until you feel uncomfortable, and then stop. When you can painlessly stretch the injured muscle as far as you can the one on the opposite side of the body, you are ready for action again.

A fall from a height that snaps the head back can cause a whiplash injury. A cheerleader or gymnast sustaining such a fall may at the least experience dizziness and headache or at the most may dislocate or fracture a cervical vertebra in the neck.

This is very serious injury and should be treated only by emergency medical personnel. If you hit your head hard on the floor and your neck snaps back, do not move until an ambulance arrives and an expert can stabilize your neck. Continued medical care under the direction of a physician will be necessary.

Gymnastics and cheerleaders who tumble often experience shoulder injuries. In no other sport is an athlete so suddenly forced to support his or her entire body weight on the shoulders. For this reason, gymnasts often suffer severe rotator cuff muscle injuries. Cheerleaders who are bases also often suffer from this injury, because they support weight above their heads. This is most often seen with cheerleaders who are bases for partner stunts.

Stretched or torn rotator cuff muscles lead to tendinitis in the shoulder. You can control the pain and inflammation with rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory agents. But treatment requires a special exercise program to restrengthen these muscles, which hold the joint together. Continually overstressing the shoulder can partially dislocate it by weakening the rotator cuff muscles, which loosens the joint.

Anyone with hyper-extended joints is prone to develop back problems. Because of the tremendous torque gymnasts exert on their backs, they commonly suffer injuries all the way up the spine to the skull.

A gymnast or cheerleader who falls to the floor on her back can fracture one or more of the wings of the vertebrae, or they may fracture the part that connects the front and rear portions of the vertebra, an injury called spondylolysis. Sometimes the front part of the vertebra slips forward with activity in those who already have spondylolysis. This condition, called spondylolisthesis, leaves the spine unstable. If rest and back-strengthening exercises fail to correct the problem, the vertebra may need to be fused surgically and the athlete will have to give up their sport.

Landing on your behind from the height of the rings, uneven bars or cheerleading stunt can compress the vertebrae so much that they fracture. You may even chip off a piece of vertebra. This is known as wedging.

Arching the back violently, particularly on gymanstics dismounts, can cause this injury to the rear rather than the front part of the vertebra. Arching flexes and extends the spine so much that the vertebrae bang into each other. Most gymnastics schools now discourage arching on landing to avoid this severely painful injury.

Stress fractures of the spine and pelvis are rare, but they can disable a gymnast or cheerleader for up to two years. These are weight-bearing joints, so they heal slowly. If you have persistent pain in your back or pelvic area, have a doctor perform a bone scan to check for a stress fracture.

If the elbow gives way while you are doing a tumbling pass or during a cheerleading stunt, you can sprain the ligaments on the inside of the elbow. A mild sprain simply requires rest. A more severe sprain may require you to wear a splint for several weeks. After the healing begins, you should strengthen the elbow with an exercise program. This injury often is confused with tennis elbow, which is an inflammation of the muscles of the wrist where they attach to the elbow. An athlete develops "tennis elbow" when a sudden stress on the wrist stretches it up and back, causing pain on the inside of the elbow. Stressing the wrist forward can cause pain on the outside of the elbow.

Hitting the mat on your arms with the elbows locked can hyperextend the elbow, that is, force it to extend farther than it is designed to go. If this happens, rest and ice the elbow, and then do strengthening exercises until the elbow has healed.

Gymnasts also can develop a form of "pitcher's elbow". Two of the bones in the elbow joint (radius and ulna) bang into each other, causing a dead area in the elbow. The dead bone may chip off, and the chips may float inside the elbow, causing pain and clicking in the joint. A fracture of the olecranon process in the back of the elbow can also cause bone chips. If these floating chips get caught in the joint, the elbow can lock. You will need to have the chips removed surgically, but you can return to action as soon as you recover from the surgery.

Gymnasts and cheerleaders who tumble commonly sprain wrists from applying force to the wrist in tumbling routines. As with any sprain, the proper treatment is RICE. If you get a severe sprain, you must have it x-rayed, just as you would a severe ankle sprain. The wrist has many small bones with many ligaments that can sprain or tear.

Tumbling is an activity that suddenly places the entire body weight on the wrists. This can lead to tendinitis in the wrist and elbow. Weight lifters may lift their own body weight and golfers may apply tremendous torque to the wrists, but only gymnasts and tumblers combine the two movements. It is common to stretch ligaments in your wrist, causing pain and discomfort. This can often be managed by exercising the wrist to strenthen the tendons or by supporting it with a brace.

Painful wrist motion may be due to a ganglion, which is a cyst in the tendon sheath on the back or front of the wrist. The ganglion forms as a result of trauma to the wrist tendon. A ganglion usually responds to a cortisone injection, but it may need to be removed surgically.

Landing on an outstretched hand can also break a tiny wrist bone at the base of the thumb. A fracture of this navicular bone causes pain and tenderness in the wrist behind the thumb and makes it difficult to extend the wrist backward. This is a difficult injury to diagnose because the break in the bone may not show up on an x-ray until several weeks after the injury. If your doctor suspects you may have fractured this bone, make sure he or she orders a second x-ray a few weeks after the first one.

Healing is especially difficult for this injury due to poor blood supply to that area of the wrist. The bone usually knits in two months but may take as long as six to eight months. If it does not heal, surgery to fuse the parts together will be necessary if you wish to continue your tumbling career.

Knee injuries are not common for gymnasts but are more often found in cheerleaders. It is important to cushion the knee in certain stunt dismounts, as some may apply extra pressure to the knees. Jumping can also injure the knees. These injuries usually occur when the knee is hyperextended. Although the most common injury is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear, an athlete may tear other ligaments, as well as cartilage.

Because gymnastics is basically a running sport, it can lead to running-related injuries such as shin splints and runner's knee. Cheerleaders also experience this from jumping and some stunts. These injuries are due to problems with the foot striking the floor. They will usually feel the pain in their shins or knees when running, or even when they are still.

Ankle sprains and even fractures are common among gymnasts and cheerleaders, who can land off-balance from jumps or tumbling passes or on the edge of the mat. All but the mildest ankle injuries should be examined by a physician and x-rayed. A sprained ankle can be treated by RICE, range-of-motion exercises, and then strengthening exercises. A broken ankle will need to be casted for 6 to 12 weeks, and then re-strengthened with the same exercise program used for a sprained ankle.

The repeated trauma of landing hard from dismounts off the balance beam, vault, rings, uneven and parallel bars, jumps or stunts can cause stress fractures of the long bones of the foot. An off-balance landing may also cause toes or other bones to break.

Cheerleaders tend to have tighter joints, and they may not work on their flexibility as much as gymnasts or warm up adequately. Consequently, cheerleaders suffer more pulled muscles, inflamed tendons, and sprained ligaments than gymnasts.

In addition, cheerleading is a burst-type sport. There are long downtimes while the game goes on. If you don't keep warm during inactive periods, you risk pulling a muscle. Cheerleaders at football games in cold weather especially have to keep their bodies warm and their muscles loose.

In general, cheerleaders suffer injuries similar to those of gymnasts. They have a higher incidence of hip and groin injuries due to performing splits, often from a height. If you have a foot imbalance, such as a pronating foot, the common stamping of the foot on a hardwood basketball floor can cause severe shin splints or stress fractures of the leg. You can correct this by taking anti-inflammatory agents to relieve the initial pain and then by wearing an arch support or orthotic in your sneaker.

Cheerleading today, with its gymnastics-infused routines, is a high-risk sport. A fall from the top of a pyramid or a missed catch after being thrown by another cheerleader can lead to a traumatic head injury or a broken neck. Cheerleaders have died from falling from the upper part of a pyramid, and there are "illegal" stunts that only college-level squads and competition squads are allowed to perform because of this risk.

Both gymnasts and cheerleaders should concentrate on strength training to improve their performance and prevent injuries. For gymnasts, strength and balance are the major factors in competition. Cheerleaders especially need to increase their strength, particularly in their upper bodies. If the bottom person in a pyramid doesn't have a strong back, the whole pyramid can collapse, causing injuries to many. For flyers, balance is important as well as flexibility.

Most gymnasts and cheerleaders start training at a young age. Girls age 11 and up can lift weights to increase their strength without bulking up their muscles. As long as a girl has normal levels of estrogen circulating in her blood, her muscles will become stronger and toned without looking bulky.

At the college level, most cheerleaders are also gymnasts who are good athletes. At the high school level, however, the strength and flexibility training required of gymnasts often does not carry over to cheerleaders. Cheerleaders need to consider themselves athletes and condition themselves as gymnasts do. They have to train like any other competitive athlete: lift weights, stretch their muscles, and condition their bodies.

To prevent muscle pulls, both gymnasts and cheerleaders need to work on flexibility and warm up, particularly between bursts of activity. Warm up means what it says: keep your body temperature up. Then they need to do a total body-stretching program. Usually gymnasts are so flexible that they only need minimal stretching after warming up. Cheerleaders probably need a prolonged stretching period so that they can maintain their flexibility during inactive periods.