Professional Pain Relief
Why Athletes Are Ditching Pharmaceuticals For Cannabidiol
By Maxwell Barna a writer in the men's lifestyle space, covering everything from food and booze to auto, tech, and the Great Outdoors.
When we think of professional athletes, we don’t often see normal people. Normal people do normal things. We put our boots on, one at a time. We work office jobs. We’re heroes only to our children, and even then, only until they’re old enough to hate us. We are normal people who live normal lives and do normal things, and we admire athletes the way we do because they do things we never will in ways we never could.
To us, especially in childhood, professional athletes are Gods among men. In their primes, they seemingly don’t age, they don’t injure, and they sure as hell don’t die. They live on in our minds and in our hearts, and the people we idolize as children oftentimes stick with and motivate us into adulthood.
But athletes are human. They get old. They retire. Their bones break and bodies ache, and more often than not, the injuries they acquire on the field follow them for the rest of their lives. In fact, according to a 2013 Washington Post Study, nine in 10 retired NFL players report suffering from daily aches and pains, and of those players, 91 percent of them connect most, if not all, of their pains to their time on the field.
Ninety-one percent. Think about that. Think of every NFL player you’ve ever loved and admired. Chances are, he will live in pain for the rest of his life after his career is over—if he isn’t, already.
Hell, I’ll never forget reading an old William Nack article in an issue of Sports Illustrated when I was a kid. In the article, Miki Yaras-Davis, now Senior Director of Benefits of the NFL Players Association, says something that, to this day, still makes me cringe:
“If you go to a retired players’ convention, there are older retirees who walk around like Maryland crabs,” she says in the article. “It’s an orthopedic surgeon’s dream. I’m surprised the doctors aren’t standing outside the door handing out their cards. Hardly one [former player] you see doesn’t need a hip replacement. Everybody comes out of pro football with some injury. It’s only the degree that separates them.”
Of course, this isn’t just a football problem. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine surveyed 284 former professional soccer players and found that soccer-related injuries—including osteoarthritis—were extremely common among retired players and that the development of these issues is associated with “poorer outcomes on all aspects of [Health Related Quality of Life].” Similar trends can be found all over the sports world, but they’re rarely—if ever—talked about.
And when it comes to treating these injuries, most athletes are usually given the old pharmaceutical song and dance. It’s pretty common knowledge that over the last few decades, professional athletes have normally been relegated to everything from post-game beers and stiff drinks, to over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, to addicting opioids and other strong painkillers, and everything in between. In fact, according to one study, which surveyed over 640 retired NFL players, retired ball players are four times more likely to use opioids and painkillers than the average person. The study also found that over half of the respondents used opioids during their careers, and over 71 percent of those who used them reported overusing them.
Luckily, we’re starting to see a huge shift in the way people (And by “people,” I mean “fans, athletes, doctors, and yes, slowly but surely, the organizations who manage them”) view treating sports-related injuries.
Study after study after study is showing that cannabis—by way of CBD and THC—can help athletes reduce anxiety, reduce pain, improve focus, assist in recovery, and yes, even help repair fractured bones. And it does it without enhancing performance, promoting muscle growth, or creating patterns of addiction.
We’re also seeing more athletes than ever before catching on to the trend and coming out in support of medical marijuana. Hell, it seems like just yesterday the Olympic Committee was contemplating stripping Michael Phelps, the most highly awarded Olympian in history, of his medals because photos of him doing bong rips made it to the Internet. Now, athletes are putting so much pressure on their respective leagues that even the NFL has agreed to work with the NFLPA to study the potential use of cannabis as a pain management tool for players—both current and retired.
Players are coming out in droves to discuss how cannabis has helped them manage the physical and psychological trauma associated with their professional careers, and how it helped them become better athletes.
Ebenezer Ukuban, a 41-year-old retired defensive end for the Denver Broncos told The Washington Post in a 2017 article that he wakes up in pain every single day from his time as a professional football player. In fact, he gave the interview while on a tour of a CBD manufacturer, who invited Ukuban and other retired players out there to check out alternatives to pills and other pharmaceutical “medicines.”
And it doesn’t end there.
Retired NBA Forward Cliff Robinson appeared on the “Docs and Jocks” panel at the Cannabis Science Conference Center just last week to discuss how cannabis helped him relieve his anxiety, but was eventually arrested and suspended from the league in 2001 for possession. He talked about how he was literally held at gunpoint by police for being in possession of what amounted to half a joint.
Retired offensive lineman Eben Britton, who also appeared on the panel, talked about how dangerous and addictive painkillers like Oxycodone and Vicodin were literally passed around between players on the airplane while on their way to games.
Back in April, a panel of six all-star pros from the NHL and NFL met at the NoCo Hemp Expo in Loveland, Colo., to talk about the dangers of prescription drug abuse in sports, and about how they struggled with various pains and healthcare issues throughout—and after—their playing careers, and how cannabis and cannabis oils helped them recover.
Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rick Upchurch told the panel that he’s currently taking CBD oil to help with his fight against CML (Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia), and how marijuana helped him stay off opioids in the ‘70s, despite the recommendation and pressure from his trainers, coaches, and doctors.
Charlie Adams, another former wide receiver, used his time on the panel to discuss the very real concern players have about league retaliation.
“If Peyton Manning said, ‘what got me back from my neck injury to win the Super Bowl with the Broncos was cannabis and CBDs,’ then yeah, possibly,” he said in an interview with The Cannabist after the event. “But until it’s a superstar player, it’s just going to fall on deaf ears.”
These are very real concerns from the men who lived the life and know it better than most.
But what, then, can we surmise about all of it?
Well, we know athletes are going to keep getting injured. We know that these injuries will only get worse over time. We know that athletes across the board are being over-prescribed—and are over-using—addictive drugs. We know that outside the professional sports industry, opioid addiction and overdose deaths are on the rise like never before.
But we also know that cannabis isn’t just a pipe dream anymore. We know that it has real benefits—both psychological and physical—and we know that the research supports its real-world values. We know that athletes, doctors, and trainers are starting to speak out about how cannabinoids (and even cannabis, on the whole) are helping people in very real ways. And we know that, as far as we can tell, at least, the leagues are starting to listen.