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NASCAR America: Exploring head trauma and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s history with concussions

Nate Ryan takes an in depth look at the cause of the concussions and the research being done on the connection between brain trauma, concussions and athletes, in light of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ongoing health issues.

In the first of a multipart series (video above), NASCAR America spoke with some renowned researchers in the field of head trauma and what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is facing in his recovery from a concussion.

Earnhardt will miss at least two more Sprint Cup races after being sidelined for the past five. He believes his struggles with balance and gaze stability began with a June 12 crash at Michigan International Speedway. Earnhardt said the impact’s severity shouldn’ t have caused a concussion, and symptoms “crept in” that took him out of the No. 88 Chevrolet three races later.

Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder Dr. Robert Cantu said symptoms usually don’t lie dormant so long and could have been provoked by returning to the car. Cantu also explained the cumulative nature of concussions, noting there are statistics that show someone is four to six times more likely to have a repeat concussion after sustaining the first.

“Nobody agrees exactly on how many concussions you can have, or how long the concussions can last before they clear, or whether you should go back (to playing a sport after several concussions),” Cantu said. “The big red flags, though, are when an individual has required very heavy blows to the head to produce concussions, and now they’ve had a number, and now the blows that produce concussions are getting more mild and are now involving not even a hit to the head in some cases, but just the head being shaken.

“And if on top of that, they’re now lasting longer whereas they used to clear up within days or a week. Those are the red flags that in terms of when we professionals say, ‘It’s time to think about walking away from the activity.’ ”

Cantu also explained there as many as two dozen possible symptoms for concussions that can fall into several “baskets,” such as behavioral, cognitive and physical categories.

Earnhardt has sustained at least four concussions during his 17 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series, starting with a head injury in an April 2002 wreck at Fontana, Calif., that Earnhardt hid while racing through it for a few months. In 2012, he missed two races after suffering two concussions in two months.

Watch the video above for more details. Below is a discussion that followed the airing of the report on Thursday’s NASCAR America.