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Cheerleaders at risk for concussion

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ATHENS, GA (CBS46) -

A sport with a growing concern for concussion that may be overlooked is cheerleading.

Last year at the University of Georgia, there were more concussions per cheerleader than there were per football player.

UGA considers cheerleaders athletes, even though the NCAA doesn't recognize cheer as a college sport.

"I wouldn't want to cheer anywhere else. I mean this is greatest school ever. We give them all we got and it's our second priority to school," cheerleader Hannah Lech said.

Lech, of Alpharetta, grew up doing gymnastics and later turned to cheer. 

"I found the dedication and commitment makes me more successful in other aspects of my life," Lech said.

Round-off back handspring fulls come naturally to the sophomore. UGA raised the bar.

"The stunts are more than I ever imagined myself doing when I was in high school and tumbling, a lot higher standards," Lech said.

Head UGA cheer coach Ben O'Brien admits the skill level required becomes more advanced each year, and even more so by the time cheerleaders get to college.

"It's very demanding. When you're in college, you can flip in the air and you can twist, and with stunts, you can flip. With pyramids, you're two and a half people high," O'Brien said.

The stunts are complicated. Even so, a concussion never crossed Lech's mind.

"Whenever I heard about cheerleaders getting concussions, I thought, 'oh, they're being too cautious,'" Lech said. 

Her view changed last year. 

"I threw up a girl. She did one flip, two twists. It was actually one of her first tries so she was a little nervous and I think she just kind of did something weird and came down a little bit crooked. I was supposed to catch her sideways, but her feet actually came this way and hit me in the face," Lech said.

Lech was knocked down and dizzy but continued to practice. It wasn't until the next day she realized something was wrong.

"I started slurring my words a little bit, started getting hot flashes, was nauseous, which was weird," Lech said.

Lech was one of eight cheerleaders at UGA who suffered a concussion last year. There are only 52 cheerleaders. Compare that to the nine football players on a team of 125.

"Last year for us, we had a pretty big learning curve in terms of, we a had a lot of new kids come in. It's an elbow to the head here or there, or if you're catching somebody, and you're catching them and your heads butting, things like that," O'Brien said.

Dr. Ken Mautner with Emory's Sport Medicine Center said girls are more prone to concussions than boys. Couple that with the need to constantly try new stunts and the risk for concussion increases.

"Any sport where you are twirling your body rapidly and there's a lot of acceleration and deceleration forces to the brain is a potential for brain injury. If the spotting's not done correctly or if they land awkwardly, just with the high velocity of impact with no protection on the brain at all, no helmet or anything like that, it lends itself to having concussions," Mautner said. 

O'Brien feels UGA takes the proper precautions and takes concussion education and treatment seriously.

"We know when they've had enough in terms of pushing them and stepping back and saying let's take a deep breath here because we don't want them to injure themselves," O'Brien said.

Lech was required to fill out a symptoms sheet daily and couldn't return to cheer until her symptom list was at zero.

"I know what I signed up for. I know it's a risk and if I get one, then, it's all part of it. I'm healed from it and just have to make sure I'm careful," Lech said.

Mautner said the blows in cheerleading sometimes aren't as obvious as the hits in football. That's why it's important for cheerleaders to report when they feel out of sorts. In certain people, Mautner believes three or four concussions over six to eight years could cause long-term damage and could end a career.

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