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!