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Parents Of Football Players, Cheerleaders Share Concussion Concern

Alexa Caiazzo
(Photo courtesy of Barrow Neorological Institute)
Alexa Caiazzo was a competitive cheerleader until she sustained three concussions within a few weeks.

The first time Alexa Caiazzo was kicked in the head at a cheerleading practice she shook it off and went back to work.

Within days, she noticed pain in her legs and weakness in her arms and legs.

“I love my coaches to this day, but I don’t think they were educated enough to know that it was a concussion,” she said.

It wasn’t until days later she told her mom what happened. Lisa Caiazzo took her daughter to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

Within the next six weeks, Caiazzo was kicked in the head twice more, which caused two more concussions.

“It’s so hard and you just try and make sure that they’re safe and let them enjoy their passion and at the same time you’re a nervous wreck,” Lisa said. Her 13-year-old daughter was also a competitive cheerleader.

Cheerleading saw the biggest jump in girls high school sports participation nationally, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

A 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics found concussions make up 31 percent of all cheerleading injuries. Also, female athletes are closing the gender gap when it comes to concussions.

The Barrow Neurological Institute pioneered the Brainbook, a mandatory concussion education program for high school athletes, including spiritline.

Dr. Javier Cárdenas, a sports neurologist, said there are still gaps in policy for club sports, which don’t have the same governing body as high school sports.

Cárdenas said the spotlight on brain injuries is changing the way parents think about their kid’s extracurricular activities.

RELATED: To listen to an interview with Dr. Javier Cárdenas on KJZZ's The Show, click here.

A survey found one-third of Valley parents said they wouldn’t allow their kids to play football. However, 85 percent would allow their kids to play contact sports, an increase from a previous survey in 2014.

The survey consisted of 424 Phoenix-area adults.

Arizona’s high school sports association has lead the nation in several rules designed to make contact sports safer. For example, by limiting contact practice and requiring inspections when football helmets are knocked off. The  National Federation of State High School Associations adopted both of these rules.

“Our approach to all sports is to implement policies, education, prevention, rules, etc. as many as possible to make every sport as safe as possible,”  Cárdenas said.

After her daughters’ injuries, Lisa Caiazzo pulled Alexa, 16, and her sister from competitive cheer.

“I kick myself because maybe if I pulled them sooner … but I didn’t,” She said.

Nearly a year after her concussions, her daughter still has symptoms such as trouble focusing at school. She's a junior at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert

“If there is any little inkling of a doubt just go,” Lisa Caiazzo said. “Don’t wait.”

Alexa Caiazzo didn’t leave cheerleading behind entirely. She now coaches younger cheerleaders with an increased focus on safety. One day, she hopes to open her own gym.

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.