Cheerleading Poses Highest Risk of Catastrophic Injury

By Briana Vannozzi

“I experienced the headaches start, and we couldn’t figure out why it was starting. I tried all different medicines. I went to neurologists and headache specialists. I was hospitalized,” Morgan Lowrey said.

That was six months after Lowrey, then a freshman cheerleader at Rutgers, experienced whiplash, a broken nose and a head injury. Her teammate hit her face-on, falling out of a three-level pyramid.

“I didn’t want to do things. I didn’t want to go out,” she said. “I wanted to get through my day, go through school and go to bed.”

She had a 55-week-long headache, nausea, light and noise sensitivity. Doctors were stumped. It wasn’t just post concussion syndrome. Lowrey, it turned out, had a sheath of scar tissue compressing her nerves as a result of the injury. The diagnosis? Occipital neuralgia.

“When there’s a trauma there’s inflammation, and inflammation leads to scar tissue,” said Dr. Matthew Kauffman.

Kauffman is one of just a handful of surgeons in the country performing microvascular decompression surgery. It’s an emerging technique to untangle and relieve nerves.

“The compression can be from muscles that are too tight around the nerves. It can be from the tissue layers, called fascia,” he said. “Then sometimes even blood vessels, which are supposed to be separate from the nerve, can get wrapped around or stuck to the nerve.”

It’s an outpatient procedure lasting about three to five hours with minimal risk. Kauffman uses microscopic techniques to trace out the path of those nerves. To date he’s performed about 30 at his Shrewsbury office, and patients find him after medication and therapies fail.

“We definitely do not operate as a first line treatment for headache conditions. We always try the standard approaches,” he said.

By all accounts, Lowrey’s surgery was a success. Kauffman explains that most of these procedures are prompted by head trauma from car accidents, falls and sports injuries.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says cheerleading causes the highest rate of catastrophic injuries out of all high school sports, and it’s just as likely to happen during practice as it is during during a game.

“It is dangerous. Whether its game cheerleading, or competitive cheerleading, you’re doing stunts, you’re tumbling, you’re jumping and these injuries can happen,” Lowrey said.

A bill in the state Senate is proposing to make cheerleading a sport in New Jersey, but even those in favor say the regulations may not prevent severe injury. Lowrey has sidelined herself from the Rutgers team. She’s focused on finishing her degree and coaching a JV squad at Mt. Olive High School, instead.

“I just want everyone to be safe and be aware of the symptoms, and make sure you’re going to be treated if you think you have a symptom. It’s not something that you take lightly,” Lowrey said.

The neurology world is still skeptical of this procedure; It’s only been around for eight to nine years. That’s considered infancy stage in the medical field. Both Lowrey and Kauffman believe this method will take off in the next five to 10 years as word spreads and relief is found.