Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Bringing Concussions Out of the Darkness
I never wanted to be a concussion expert. I know some of the world’s leading authorities on head injuries and I’m certainly not one of them, but “expert” is a relative term. My expertise comes from personal experience.
During my two decades behind the wheel as a full-time Nascar driver, I suffered more than a dozen concussions. For a long time, I managed to keep most of them a secret, but then my symptoms got too severe to keep up the charade and I was forced to get help. My battle with head injuries has given me a wealth of firsthand knowledge of the causes, symptoms, and types of concussions, and their treatments.
Racers get every injury you can think of, from broken legs to cracked collarbones. But it was concussions, not fractures, that forced me to retire as a full-time Nascar driver in 2017. Twice I was pushed out of the driver’s seat because of concussion-related symptoms, missing two major races in 2012 and an entire half-season in 2016.
During the four years in between I had other injuries too, but I kept them hidden until doctors intervened and told me to get out of my car. In the days following a race, I would often feel disoriented and confused, detached from my body. Some people experience sharp headaches or ringing in the ears when concussed. For me, my balance was off and my mind felt swishy, lagging behind whatever my body was trying to do.
In 1998, at the Daytona 300, my Chevy was tossed into the air and slammed down so hard on its nose that my helmet dented the steel roll cage. Later that week when I was working inside a car at the shop, I suddenly felt the car rolling. I sat up and realized it hadn’t moved an inch. I’d eventually find out my vestibular system — the communication lines between the brain, inner ear and body — had been damaged.
But at the time, driven by a will to win and a hardheaded racing tradition of never showing vulnerability, I concealed my suffering. I would usually rally by the time the next race weekend came around. Still, the stress chemicals produced by the anxiety of keeping my secret worsened my condition. And as I got older, I needed longer and longer to recover.
I persisted because it’s what racecar drivers are supposed to do. You tough it out. I also believed then what so many still do now: that a concussion is permanent. I worried if I revealed how I really felt, my peers on the racetrack would see me as damaged goods.
Those same myths and fears affect football players and construction workers, kids playing youth sports and even people who get in the odd car accident on their way to the office. But these myths lead us to make uninformed decisions that harm our lives and livelihoods. A recent Harris Poll commissioned by the doctors who treated me at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program found that 25 percent of parents prevent their children from playing contact sports because of concussion concerns.
I’m a parent now and I would never tell someone how to raise his child. And I don’t deny the estimate that there are 1.7 million to three million sports-related concussions a year.
However, I am sure that there is a middle ground, that we can encourage our kids both to be active and competitive — and to be safe. Research shows that concussion risks can be reduced by playing smarter and using the proper equipment.
When concussions do occur, it’s important to remember that brain injuries can be treated and healed like any other athletic injury — but only if the proper steps are taken, the right doctors are reached and the prescribed treatment is followed through to the end.
That treatment is not easy. I’d never been a gym guy, but I learned how to become one. My rehabilitation in 2016 was the hardest I have ever worked. I wasn’t told to sit in a dark room, the stereotypical treatment for concussion. That’s not how it works anymore. Instead, I was pushed mentally and physically through fine motor skill tuning, exhausting computer-based eye tests, and a lot of old-fashioned cardio. After months of work I could feel my brain, eyes, ears and body communicating properly again.
I also felt my life returning. The constant, dull feeling of fear lifted. I was smiling again.
Now, I tell my story to let people know they don’t have to silently walk it off. I tell it to my racing friends who confess they’ve also been suffering in secret and to many others who’ve never raced a lap. I’ve given out the phone number to my doctor, Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh, more times than I can count in the past few years. And when those people reconnect later to tell me that Micky and his team have given them their lives back, it feels like winning a race.
The advancements in brain science since my first major injury in 2012 are incredible. But all that science won’t mean much if those of us who are hurting don’t come out of hiding and allow it to be put to use.
I don’t blame my sport for my suffering. Neither do the other professional athletes I know who love their sport every bit as much as I love mine. And people hurt on the job performing other tasks are likely just as passionate about what they do.
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