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NEWS10 ABC Special Report: Cheerleader concussions

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Updated: 11/21/2013 10:27 pm

SHENENDEHOWA, N.Y. - Concussions are on the radar of any parent of an athlete, especially for sports like football, but the dangers of high flying cheerleaders are just as real.

Over a 10 year period, concussion rates in cheerleading have increased by 26-percent each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A local pediatrician says concussions are difficult to notice sometimes because people don't have to be unconscious to have one.

One local mother, Joanna Hart, is always watching out for 16-year-old Darienne Hickey's safety as her daughter cheers for the Shenendehowa football team.

Hart is always focused when Darienne's feet come off the ground to perform a stunt.

Dr. Michael Looney of Delmar Pediatrics says it depends on how dangerous stunting for cheerleaders is.

"If you look at sports," Looney says, "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 says 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 says.  "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 say they make it a priority to prevent concussions.

Berger says the Suburban Council rules no girl 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," says Figel.  "Now we can't do anything without mats."

"The girls and boys on our squad don't know any different," adds Berger. "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," says Hart. "Luckily, she was fine, but that's the only scare I've had."

"It has freaked me out since," says Hickey. "Sometimes I try to avoid doing that certain stunt, but you have to think, you can trust everyone underneath you."

Coach Berger and Coach Figel say their team spends hours practicing every week, just like any other sport. Those hours transcend into big performances and some big stunts.

Dr. Looney says 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.

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