Cheerleading has proven to be by far the most dangerous sport for female athletes, yet many doctors allow them to frequently continue to compete after they have suffered a concussion based on the cheerleaders’ own evaluations of their injury.
New research reported in the Journal of Pediatrics finds that doctors may want to rely on a more scientific—and trustworthy—tool to diagnose concussions.
Dr. Mark R. Lovell, with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery, and Dr. Gary Solomon, with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine studied 138 junior and senior high school cheerleaders with concussions who underwent pre-season baseline neurocognitive testing and completed at least one follow-up evaluation within seven days of injury, using Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT).
They found that 37 percent of the cheerleaders had symptoms of a concussion but failed to report them. This means that these cheerleaders reported their symptoms inaccurately, overestimated their recovery, or were unaware of their decreased neurocognitive performance.
The research noted a sharp increase of hospital emergency visits by cheerleaders, from 4,954 in 1980 to 26,786 in 2007.
The study also noted that cheerleading accounts for 66 percent of catastrophic sports injuries—the kind that shorten lives or result in permanent disability or long-term medical conditions—among girls.
Some 6 percent of all cheerleaders’ injuries are concussions, which are defined as “traumatically induced alterations in mental status” caused by damage to the head.
“It is common knowledge that athletes may at times minimize or deny symptoms after injury to avoid being removed from competition,” said Dr. Solomon, the study’s co-author. “Treating physicians should be cautious to return athletes to play based solely on self-reported symptoms.”
The researchers conclude that neurocognitive testing should be mandatory to protect cheerleaders from potential worse injury. Furthermore, the study’s data suggests that if neurocognitive testing is unavailable, then the treating physician should be cautious in returning athletes to play based on their self-report of symptoms alone.