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Power Diagnosis Highlights Need for Concussion Understanding

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In the aftermath of Will Power’s “Does he or doesn’t he?” concussion drama at St. Petersburg, the debate over how much influence doctors should have on drivers suffering head injuries flared up once again.

Drivers like NASCAR’s Brad Keselowski believe doctors do not understand concussions well enough to be authoritative in keeping racers sidelined out of concern for their health. But Dr. Stephen Olvey, a veteran neurologist who has been in motorsports medicine for decades, says that, just like racers, some doctors are simply slow adopters of new research and understanding about head injuries.

“I went to a neurology conference two years ago, and there were a couple of neurologists that were rather well-known who were kind of scoffing at the idea of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and having too many concussions,” Dr. Olvey says. “The situation is still present where a lot of physicians at the racetrack – especially at levels lower than IndyCar or NASCAR – are not really tuned in on diagnosing the concussion. There are still people that think you have to be knocked out. There are still people that think you had to have hit your head. None of that’s true. You can have a very significant concussion and not hit your head at all.”

In the past, racers were slow to adopt safety measures such as the HANS Device and advocate for soft wall systems such as SAFER until 2001, when Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death at the Daytona 500 rocked the racing world. The tendency to rely on what is known and comfortable, which hindered racing for years, can extend to doctors as well. Education and spreading the word about concussion research, says Dr. Olvey, is preferable in overcoming that inertia than complacency that results in a tragedy.

“We’re trying to spread the word to different organizations in motorsports as well as to sports medicine, and the American College of Sports Medicine has a task force on this,” Dr. Olvey continues. “It has to be a conscious thing and a conscious awareness around team members.

“If a crew member or the car owner or the chief principal thinks the driver is not acting quite right after an incident or is just a little bit strange, you need to err on the side of being conservative, and they need to be brought in and given an exam. And if it leads to what happened with Will, even though the symptoms were due to something other than a concussion, you still have to go through that process because concussion is very serious.”

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Tony Johns

Tony Johns is an award-winning publisher, writer, PR specialist, and designer with nearly 20 years' experience in the industry covering IndyCar, NASCAR, sports car racing, and West Coast short track racing. He lives among the tumbleweeds in Arizona and has an aversion to people on his porch.

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