MESQUITE, Texas – The nation's leading pediatricians group is worried about the rising number and severity of injuries from cheerleading activities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says there were almost 37,000 emergency room visits last year related to cheerleading.
On Monday, in the journal Pediatrics, the group recommended schools designate cheerleading as a sport and give it stronger safety rules. Ideally, the group says that would mean schools hire on-site athletic trainers, give programs a limit on practice time and submit coaches to a more rigorous examination for qualifications.
In Texas, cheerleading is not an official activity regulated by the University Interscholastic League, according to UIL assistant athletic director Traci Neely.
"Cheerleading programs exist as a part of the support structure for many different school competitions, therefore cheer squads are considered as an extracurricular activity," Neely said in a written response to questions from News 8.
Former competitive high school cheerleader Linsey Martin of Mesquite knows how risky it can be.
"Doing a basket toss … I broke my L-4 vertebrae," she said. The accident in 2004 left her in a wheelchair or on crutches for two years. She also began having seizures.
"I'm very, very, very blessed to be walking right now. I was told I wasn't going to."
Through surgery and therapy using electricity, her symptoms have eased. Her passion for making cheerleading safer, however, has not.
"Cheerleading shouldn't be removed from programs. It should just be regulated a lot more than it is now," she says. "Cheerleading is dangerous now because the laws haven't caught up with the degree of difficulty going on."
Cheerleading injuries last year were four times higher than in 1980.
"The severity is on par with some of the football injuries we're seeing," said orthopedic surgeon Richard Schuster of Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. He said he sees three to five cheerleading injuries each week.
"Elbow fractures and dislocations,” he says, listing off an array of physical diagnoses. “Forearm fractures, wrist fractures."
Statistics show that cheerleading still doesn't have as many injuries as other sports, including gymnastics, soccer and field hockey.
But pediatricians say the severity of those injuries is worse, including skull and paralyzing spine injuries.
Neely said cheerleading coaches and sponsors can voluntarily opt to comply with Texas safety mandates by completing a portion of the UIL Rules Compliance Program.
"The course, 'Safety Training for Extracurricular Programs,' provides the same safety information that is required of athletic coaches," Neely said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.