Drugs & Health Blog

Pro Athletes, Marijuana, and Opioids

The NIDA Blog Team

Using drugs while playing pro sports will usually get a player warned, fined, or suspended. But some people think it’s time to let athletes use marijuana to treat pain from the injuries pro sports can inflict.

Nate Jackson, who played for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008, says NFL players need marijuana for medical reasons, to help players cope with the frequent injuries—or as he puts it, “to offset the brutality of the game.” In a New York Times opinion piece last year, Jackson argued that marijuana is a better option than handing injured players bottles of prescription opioids, strong pain medications that can be highly addictive. NBA player Blake Griffin has also said that pro athletes might benefit from medical marijuana to treat pain, instead of using prescription painkillers. 

Is marijuana a good swap for opioids?

Although prescription opioids are often addictive and can cause confusion and sleepiness, most people who use them as prescribed for acute (severe, often short-term) pain don’t develop an addiction.

However, a 2009 study commissioned by ESPN (with additional funding from NIDA) found that a lot of NFL players may be misusing opioids during their careers, leading to long-term addiction. Since prescription opioids are chemically similar to heroin, some people who start out abusing prescription opioid pain medications end up using heroin.

On the other hand, some studies have shown that marijuana (or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana) may help with some types of pain, such as chronic (persistent) nerve pain resulting from injury or surgery. But while the risks associated with marijuana addiction are generally not as severe as the possible risks of prescription opioid addiction, marijuana addiction can develop, as can other health problems. Using weed can impair thinking and memory, for example. Also, THC interferes with parts of the brain that control balance and coordination, which is bad news for athletes who need to be quick on their feet during games.

THC can also impair concentration and can make people more likely to take risks. (In fact, for some athletes increased risk-taking may be part of marijuana’s appeal. In a 2011 study, researchers (some of them from NIDA) found that some athletes might be using marijuana to forget bad falls, take more risks to improve training, or work through pain.) Not to mention that playing stoned slows people down and makes them less vigilant, which could lead to more athletic injuries. Because of the drug’s health risks, the researchers said they supported banning it from sports.

So what are players’ options to control injury-related pain?

For now, athletes can use opioid medications for a short period of time and expect them to help with recovery from injuries. Honest conversations between doctors and their athlete-patients can help lower the risk for addiction—and if problems do develop, those conversations can help people get the professional help they need before they spiral down the black hole of addiction.

For those athletes (and regular people, too) who have chronic pain, there is research showing that long-term use of opioid medications can actually make pain worse and can lead to addiction. But this is a hotly debated issue, and very smart people disagree with each other. Clearly, more research is needed. At the moment, it’s an individual decision between doctors and their patients on what treatments will work best.

There are also alternative-medicine approaches for pain that some people have found helpful, such as acupuncture, some nutritional supplements, and chiropractic treatment, among others.

Where is research (and medicine) heading?

Marijuana might be of interest to some athletes, but it doesn’t have the NFL’s seal of approval for players looking to treat their pain. And though some states have made it legal for people to use marijuana for medical reasons, it’s important to note that marijuana is still not a medicine approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which approves medicines for the federal government. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the NFL will “follow medicine” and medical experts in the future, in deciding whether to let players use marijuana to treat head injuries.  

You may have heard (or read on this blog) about FDA-approved medicines that use some of the chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids. These medicines aren’t currently approved in the U.S. for treating pain, though. However, NIDA is funding research into potential use of marijuana and cannabinoids for the treatment of pain—so depending on what the science says, this may change in the future. Stay tuned!

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.

Comments

I think athletes should use drugs because it could ruin their reputation if they get caught with them plus it messes up their brain cells and they at do good in school and in order for them to be a athlete they have to do good in school.
it cant ruin it
nahhh
The whole do good in school thing is not that true Micheal Oher for example struggled with school his whole life and was not doing the greatest in collage but went on an academic scholarship. He is now playing in the NFL and is one of the greatest line in the league and went to the Superbowl this season. So grades are a factor just not as big of one as most people believe or seem to think is true.
I mean it sort of is true because to receive his scholarship he needed to raise his grades. Thats how he got his scholarship to college. And then so on with the NFL but as a high school athlete, and soon to be college athlete, grades really are a huge factor in sports. At least or high school and college. But past that, it's just up to skill because you're not in school anymore.
I don't think that they should be able to use medical marijuana because you can also get addicted, just like painkillers.
nope
honestly you cannot get addicted to weed. The only addiction, if any, is a physical one meaning you just miss the feeling of inhaling the smoke.
of course you can you have withdrawle
I dont think they should, its bad.
Marijuana can easily make you lose focus which is a huge part of any sport.
I think that athletes shouldn't use drugs. They are just messing up there body and if they get caught they're reputation is ruined.
*their
jeez shut up
I think it's weird that NFL players would use marijuana, especially sense there suppose to be role models to kids.
They should not be allowed to used medical marijuana because the players could get addicted to it just as easy as any thing else.
Doctors have found no conclusive evidence proving the medical benefits of marijuana over other drugs and other drugs have less bad side effects and marijuana hurts your immune system.
you are very ignorant, cannabis may be in some cases mentally addictive, but there is no cases of it having physical addiction, therefor no physical withdrawals. However, pain pills prescribed by doctors are both physically and mentally addictive and change the wiring of the brain. where as if your brain is fully developed, marijuana has no bad effects to the brain
i don't think they should have marijuana because you can get suspended from little leagues to the NFL for drug use and it can damage your health and cause many more problems you could possibly get addicted.
Definitely the risk outweighs the benefits
I think athletes should not use medical marijuana because they can get addicted and if they get caught they will get kicked out of what they are doing
I think it's good to have websites like this to make people aware of how drugs can ruin lives.
I think that athletes shouldn't use any drugs because it causes so many life problems for them. it messes up their career and reputation.
I don't think athletes should use drugs because drugs are unhealthy and you need to be healthy to be an athlete.
i think they should start because the marijuana could help kill their pain
one time i ate a carrot
I don't think they should use drugs for anything. Whether it's medical or not, they could easily get addicted to it & ruin their sports career for them.
I don't agree with them! they shouldn't be able or aloud to use medical marijuana because you can get addicted to it very very easily and it can ruin you sport career real fast
allowed*
I don't agree with them at all! I don't think anyone should be able or aloud to use medical marijuana for sports purposes . also if you think about it if you take medical marijuana you can get addicted real fast and it could ruin your sports career .
I don't think they should be able to use marijuana or opioids because they can get addicted to them and it can ruin their body's in a period of time
The marijuana is very dangerous for the society.
We believe that neither should be used. Other less addicting forms of pain killers would be a much better option.
I do not think that they should use drugs for pain treatment or any medical reasoning, because pain killers can do the exact same thing so what's the point. Plus, they could get addicted to it and it could ruin their career/reputation. They could also lose their jobs if they're addicted and was caught. I think it is all around a bad idea.
even if you're using opiods prescribed you can still suffer from addiction as you can get have withdrawals and become very sick
I think athletes shouldn't be able to use medical marijuana because it can cause death and many other side effects like brain damage and lung damage. Both painkillers and marijuana can cause addiction and damage to humans.
I don't think that pro athletes should be able to use drugs because it could effect performance and they could get addicted.
I think you should be able to use medical marijuana because you cant get addicted and depended on why your smoking, eating or drinking it, it might help you.
Athletes should not be taking drugs because it can
Athlet
Get better soon!
athletes should not use drugs because it could ruin their career.
They shouldn't start letting athletes use marijuana for recovery.
i think athletes shouldn't di drugs because it could effect the way they play and could be dangerous to other players
Being an athlete myself, I do not think it is a good idea to use mariuana to control your pain, it could lead to the use of other drugs.
I think athletes should use the natural organic plant (marijuana) which has killed 0 people, instead of synthetic heroin which has caused millions upon millions of deaths (opioids)
i think athletes should use them only for injuries .
sup
Why are some althetes pro drugs
It's a performance enhancing issue. They use drugs to enhance their performance or take it for pain management. It also depends on what level of a sport you're talking about. But drug abuse does appeal to all sports and all levels of competition in those sports

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