Dr. Devick

One day when a teenager falls off his scooter and slams his head into the ground, a parent will reach into the medicine cabinet and pull out a King-Devick Test to check whether their child suffered a concussion and needs to be treated by a doctor.

Steve Devick imagines the screening test becoming as commonplace for detecting concussions as a thermometer is for detecting fevers. Devick, the United States Sports Academy’s 2011 Ernst Jokl Sports Medicine Award winner, helped invent the simple and rapid concussion detection test.

“It’s a screening test like the thermometer,” Devick says. “If you use a thermometer and it shows that you have a high fever then you go and see your doctor. I see the King-Devick Test getting to the point where it’s in your medicine cabinet and people will know their baselines like they know their blood type.”

For now, Devick would simply settle on having the test used on every sideline in sporting events at all levels from youth leagues to professional associations around the world. In fact, teams from the University of Florida to a professional New Zealand rugby team employ it.

It’s estimated that every season, 1 in 5 U.S. athletes in a contact sport suffers a concussion and more than 3.5 million sports-and-related concussions occur each year in the United States. In addition, the chance of a 30-49 year old man receiving a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s or another memory related disease is 1 in 1,000 and dramatically increases to 1 in 53 for an NFL retiree who is the same age, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports.

“Often athletes say they’re fine when they’ve gotten a concussion,” Devick says. “Nobody says they’re fine when they have broken a leg. It’s all the more reason we need an objective test like this one. The King-Devick test lets you know when to take athletes out of a game to make sure they don’t suffer further brain damage from Second Impact Syndrome (SIS).”

Devick, a former optometrist and entrepreneur, is the featured speaker at a free seminar, “Concussions as Catastrophic Injury in Sport and Cheerleading,” beginning at 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at the Academy’s campus in Daphne, Ala.

Devick will explain and demonstrate the King-Devick Test, which University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers are finding is an accurate and objective tool in assessing whether an athlete has suffered a concussion.

The test is a one-to-two-minute test that requires an athlete to establish a baseline time at the start of every season by reading a series of single digit numbers displayed on three flash cards. After a possible head injury, the athlete is given the test again. If the time needed to complete the test is more than five seconds slower than the baseline test, a concussion can be confidently suspected. At that point, the athlete should be removed from play and evaluated by a licensed medical professional.

“It is a good ‘remove-from-play’ tool. It is not a ‘return-to-play’ tool,” Devick says.

The 59-year-old co-invented the King-Devick Test as a part of his doctoral thesis with Dr. Al King in 1976 at the Illinois College of Optometry. He says he never expected it to do more than satisfy a course requirement and he jokes that he earned a ‘B’ on the project. However, it has become during the past 25 years a leading method to measure saccadic eye movements and to detect reading difficulties in children.

Meanwhile, concussions have become a major health issue in sport as mounting research shows a link to serious brain damage, even death.

Playing with a concussion can lead to death from SIS, a condition that causes the brain to swell, shutting down the brain stem and resulting in respiratory failure. Children and teenagers are more likely to get a concussion than an adult, and take longer to recover from concussions, the CDC points out. In the past two years, eight youth have died from concussion-related problems and dozens more have suffered catastrophic brain injuries.

Another growing concern is the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from concussions. CTE is a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head and its symptoms include chronic headaches, fatigue, sleep difficulties, sensitivity to light and noise, dizziness and short-term memory loss. Players who suffered multiple concussions are three times more likely to suffer depression.

It wasn’t until 2008, that Devick read an article that suggested saccadic eye movements could help diagnose sports concussions. That’s when Devick sought out Penn neuro-ophthalmologists Steven Galetta and Laura Balcer about analyzing the eye test’s ability in revealing concussions. So far, their research indicates the King-Devick Test is an effective and an objective test.

Devick has nothing but praise for the Penn researchers who refused to be paid for any studies to avoid criticism that their findings were influenced by money.

“They are true, professional scientists who want to do something that helps people,” Devick says. “We thought it would work. Everyone thought it would. But it was very important that we got validation. We chose to get the research done first. We didn’t go out and say, ‘Oh, here’s a test. Sign here. Buy here.’ It’s been quite an interesting and positive experience and even more exciting to see these studies come out showing that it is helpful.”

The studies’ positive results led to leading American activist Ralph Nader and his League of Fans advocacy group to demand recently that the use of the King-Devick Test become mandatory in all sports.

“That was unexpected,” Devick says. “My hope is this test will be used to help protect many athletes from returning to play too early and suffering further brain injuries.”

The concussion issue is personal to Devick, who says the test is the most important thing he has done professionally. In high school, he played football and recalls suffering two concussions. He also was friends with Dave Deurson, a former Chicago Bears star known for his aggressive and hard-hitting defense. Deurson shot and killed himself in February. Boston University scientists who examined the 50-year-old’s brain tissue reported in May that Duerson suffered from a “moderately advanced” case of CTE.

“You have a lot of football players, like Duerson, whose dads’ wished they had played baseball instead of football,” Devick says. “Certainly, it’s amazing to me that we have Little League coaches who count how many pitches the pitcher throws because we don’t want to throw any elbows out. But nobody counts how many times a player is hit in the head playing football.”

To learn more about the King-Devick Test and to enroll in the Nov. 11 concussion seminar, please go to http://ussa.edu/landing/king-devick.