May 15, 2016

Concussions End Texas Cheerleader’s Career, Altering a Life Once Active and Pain-free

Reporting Texas

Every morning, Kaitlyn Behnke reaches for pills.

The 21-year-old former co-captain of the University of Texas at Austin cheerleading team lifts the tab marked with the letter that matches the day of the week. She removes eight doses — a combination of the prescription pain medicines, muscle relaxants and anti-depressants Topiramate, Gabapentin, Skelaxin and Zoloft. Thirteen pills remain, to be taken hours later.

Behnke never played contact sports. But the Austin native is a part of the national discussion about brain-injury awareness in sports nonetheless.

Behnke is a junior at UT, and once was a top student with agility and energy. She has suffered six cheerleading-related concussions. The final one, last August, was so severe it changed her daily life. The bubbly demeanor and spirit she once had are muted.

“I wake up with a headache each morning and go to sleep with a headache every night,” Behnke said.

Her sixth concussion meant the end of a cheerleading career that began at age 6. She suffered her first concussion as a freshman during practice in the Westlake High School basketball gym. Her older sister, Kristen Behnke, was also on the squad, and saw Kaitlyn hit her head on the wooden gym floor.

Kaitlyn Behnke saw nothing but darkness. She thought she was unable to open her eyes. She heard her teammates calling for the coach’ s help. Once her vision returned, she spoke slowly and knew she didn’t feel like herself.

That same slowness is present today in her walk, her voice and her thoughts as a side effect of her medications. Lengthy conversations are often cut off by pain. Changes in her body language — drooping head, closed eyes — are a signal to those around her of an oncoming headache.

Behnke once had the energy to cheer in front of crowds for nearly three hours at Texas football games. Now, she rarely makes it to lunchtime before needing rest.

Cheerleading provided Behnke with a sense of belonging to the university. Kristin Behnke, 24, said she thinks giving up cheerleading had a huge effect on her younger sister’s confidence. Last August, Behnke informed the coaches that she had had another concussion. They advised her to stop cheering but offered  to let her remain on the team in her leadership role. Behnke decided it was best to turn in the orange and white fringed uniform for good.

“I worried about my head a little bit, because I need my head forever. I don’t need to cheer forever,” Behnke said.

Studies have found that concussions are the most common injury among cheerleaders. A study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 revealed that of the 20 sports with the highest concussion rates, cheerleading was the only one in which concussion rates in practice outnumbered rates in competition. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that cheerleading has accounted for more than half of all catastrophic injuries in high school girl athletes over the past 25 years.

At UT, cheerleaders now get baseline testing, which records their normal activity levels and brain functions. The baselines are used to evaluate the severity of a concussion and gauge the progress of recovery.

In January, Behnke traveled to Arizona for a long-awaited appointment at the Mayo Clinic, with concerns about complications she might suffer when she’s older. She hoped the clinic’s research knowledge could provide answers about what her future might hold.

The doctors at Mayo told her the headaches could last for at least another year. They also increased her dosage of Gabapentin, a medication that works through the nervous system to dull pain.

Each day, she battles a feeling she describes as a thick balloon expanding inside her skull and pushing against the back of her head. The headaches often cause her to find a dark and quiet room. She recently attended a play at Bass Concert Hall with her family. She wore earplugs and had to close her eyes and put her head in her lap during the show.

She depends most on her boyfriend, Colton Lowry. He is with her every day, but adjusting to life after the injury has not been easy. They began dating as freshmen in 2014.

They once spent many days at Zilker Park. Now, Behnke stays indoors most of the time. They don’t get to spend much time with friends, as her injury realigned their schedules and their priorities.

“I think it kind of put things in perspective. Like health is so much more important than school or college,” Lowry said.

Behnke graduated at the top of her class from Westlake. She came into UT with 34 hours of credit from advanced placement courses. Now she will graduate at least a semester late because concussions have reduced her schedule to part-time.

Behnke used to make straight As. She now relies on accommodations such as extra time while taking tests. The headaches often keep her home from class. When they get bad, Behnke naps. Napping comes easily because the medication makes her so tired.

Over the past year, Behnke has been to two neurologists, the Mayo Clinic, a pain center and a vision therapy center. She saw a holistic specialist. She has an upcoming appointment for prolotherapy at the Center for Healing and Regenerative Medicine in Austin. The doctor will inject a serum into her upper neck to stimulate the repair of any injuries that may have occurred with the concussions in hopes of reducing pain in her head and neck.

She maintains her optimism – even when she’s tired, hurting or wistful for the time in her life when she could cheer.

“I’m still going to doctors and still trying new approaches. I’m not just going to give in and sit around with a headache forever,” Behnke said.