All eyes were on the National Football League recently, when the 50th televised game of the league’s title match up took place. The Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10. Over $5 million was spent by advertisers for a mere 30 seconds of televised advertising. And of course, there’s always the half-time show…
After the Super Bowl trophies were awarded, the rings distributed, and the winning quarterback (Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning) headed off to Disneyland – the season seemed to be a rousing success, right? Well, with the exception of a couple of major issues.
A New Headache for Professional Sports
Thanks in part to the major motion picture, Concussion, a searing spotlight was illuminated on the devastating truth behind the long-term effects of head injuries and concussions in football. Based on the true story of Nigerian-born, forensic neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu (portrayed in the film by veteran actor Will Smith), Concussion reveals his discovery of the damage that constant traumatic physical impact has on the human brain and is the story of how he almost single-handedly takes on the NFL.
Having been in the United States for less than ten years, Omalu performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler great – “Iron” Mike Webster. His diagnosis uncovered evidence of a degenerative brain disease that would later be known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As Dr. Omalu concludes, “there is currently no protection from brain injury when playing football”.
But in a United Patients Group blog, entitled “Cannabis and Sports” (October 7, 2015), Dr. Dustin Sulak, DO wrote “Cannabis could potentially be beneficial to all sports, but especially those with high risk for head injury, because it can likely protect participants from the long term consequences of concussion and brain trauma.” In the article, Dr. Sulak references research from renowned cannabis scientist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, that was published in 2002 which indicates that the “endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol, as well as some plant and synthetic cannabinoids”, have neuroprotective effects following a brain injury.
Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD: Recovery May Be Helped by Cannabinoids
Equally compelling are the connections between another condition known as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when a “bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain.” TBI can also be associated with PTSD, so it’s not surprising that research is pointing to a link between professional athletes and veterans who are displaying similar symptoms. Symptoms may not appear until days or weeks after the injury and can include:
- A headache that gets worse or does not go away
- Repeated vomiting or nausea
- Convulsions or seizures
- Inability to awaken from sleep
- Slurred speech
- Weakness or numbness in the arms and legs
- Dilated eye pupils
Serious traumatic brain injury needs emergency treatment, not some side-line quick fix.
In another report published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it breaks down the recovery effect on the brain that certain elements of cannabis have following injury.
Daily Physical Trauma and Drug Addiction – An Indisputable (and Avoidable) Connection
Aside from the obvious and devastating effects of possible brain injuries, another given in contact sports are the inevitable toll on players’ bodies that they are subject to day-in and day-out. Managing major leg pain, shattered knees, chronic back and neck pain, as well as other bodily injuries has resulted in another major health issue for players – drug addiction.
Many players have been taking powerful prescription medications for years to get them quickly back into the game, despite serious injury. Pharmaceuticals such as Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Toradol, Celebrex, and others, are routinely given to players by team doctors. Many of these prescription treatments are highly habit-forming and have proven to be a formidable problem for professional athletes.
In a 2011 study done at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers found that former NFL players were “four times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than the general population. And more than seven in 10 players who used pain medications during their playing days went on to abuse them”. A group of former NFL players, known as the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, advocates for the use of an organic treatment for injury and illness through cannabis as well as league-funded research on medical marijuana. Spokesman and co-founder, Kyle Turley, played for ten seasons in the NFL and is leading the charge to wake up the organization to the pain-limiting and possible neuroprotective benefits of medical cannabis.
The NFL currently plays in 20 franchised states where medical marijuana is legal. Research shows cannabis as a viable treatment for pain and injury with less possibility of addiction. Earlier last month, Reason.com published an article stating that several former NFL players have tried to get medical marijuana removed from the banned substances list. These former players are also trying to make it impossible for the NFL to cut a player because of inability to play due to injury.
The “cut clause” forces an injured player to play medicated in order to keep his spot on the team, leading to pain med abuse and/or addiction. According to the article’s author, Anthony L. Fisher, “painkillers are inexplicably legitimized over less-toxic drugs used for therapeutic purposes.” Fisher goes on to question the “wisdom of banning a non-opioid substance that helps heal potentially devastating injuries, but allowing (even encouraging) injured players to be doped out of their minds on painkillers”.
Young Athletes and the Heroin Addiction Connection
A 2015 article in Sports Illustrated focused on how painkillers are turning young athletes into heroin addicts. The story of Roman Montano, a gifted young athlete that died of a heroin overdose, painfully illustrates how a young athlete’s life and career are ended by heroin addiction. SI writers L. Jon Wertheim and Ken Rodriguez comment that “Heroin use cuts across demographics. Young, old. Male, female. Wealthy, indigent. Urban, rural and, most of all, suburban. But public authorities devoted to prevention and law enforcement, from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), have been struck by a growing concentration in an unlikely subset of users: young athletes.” The connection between heroin and sports is steadily being exposed.
In a study done in 2013, University of Michigan researcher Philip Todd Veliz uncovered that approximately 11% of high school athletes will have used a narcotic pain reliever such as OxyContin or Vicodin—for nonmedical purposes – by the time they graduate. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also reports that a full 80% of all users arrive at heroin after abusing opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. The dark path to heroin addiction and young athletes seems to be frighteningly clear.
Is Cannabis a Good Swap for Opioids?
Nate Jackson who was with the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008 thinks so. NFL players need marijuana for medical reasons to help them cope with frequent injuries, or as he put it “to offset the brutality of the game.”
According to well-documented research, cannabis (or THC, the active ingredient) has been shown to help with numerous types of pain such as chronic nerve pain resulting from injury. The statistically low possibility of marijuana addiction and the mild risks associated with it, are not nearly as severe as possible addiction to prescription opioids and eventually heroin (since opioids and heroin are chemically similar).
So, should the NFL and other professional sports leagues rethink the ban on cannabis? With the exceptional safety of medical cannabis and emerging research that supports the neuroprotective effects associated with trauma to the brain – we feel the answer is unequivocally – YES.