Football in the United States has been a favorite - if not the favorite - sport for nearly sixty years, and has been around in some form for more than a century. It's played at every level, from preschoolers to the pros, and has become a staple in American culture. However, football is a dangerous sport. Sometimes the types of injuries are obvious, for example, knee and ankle injuries happen to every professional team nearly every season. But sometimes the dangers are more insidious and hidden. Brain trauma is widespread among aging athletes, which can lead to confusion, anger, dementia, and even suicidal thoughts. The NFL has gone through a number of recent scandals about these hidden dangers and the increased prescription of opioid pain medications used to treat them.
Many NFL players have come forward over recent years to discuss their prescription drug use. A New York Times report state that one player, Aaron Gibson, was taking more than 200 pills per day, and his doctor told him he was taking as much medication as a stage IV cancer patient. Players need an alternative.
The question is: can CBD step into football to not only replace opioid drugs that are so common among football players, but also to treat the other symptoms that players experience aside from the pain? The answer, it appears, is yes. Many former NFL plays are becoming strong advocates for CBD, including Brett Favre and Terrell David. Favre, who says he went from taking 14 Vicodin per day at one point, is now completely off of opioid drugs and relies on CBD to manage his pain. Davis, who had to retire early from a Hall of Fame career due to injury, now has his own brand of CBD beverages.
Perhaps the biggest news story of the decade for football has been the massive reveal of about head trauma, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). One study from 2017 found that of the 111 samples of deceased NFL players brains they examined, CTE was apparent in 110 of them.
A concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and can be categorized as mild, moderate or severe, It is theorized that every TBI has the potential to cause CTE down the road, but we also know that almost every concussion has immediate effects. Short term problems can include headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, seizures and more. More long term problems, or problems from more severe concussions, can include memory loss, chronic fatigue, trouble concentrating, and inability to communicate.
While CBD can’t prevent concussions, much research has gone into discovering ways that CBD can help treat them. One major study from the University of Miami has found that, in animal trials, combination therapy improved the cognitive function of subjects. (Combination therapy involves taking CBD along with dexanabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid.) In Canada, a study is being conducted on former hockey players to see if the severity of post-concussion brain disorders can be treated with CBD.
That said, there is some evidence that traumatic brain injury can be diminished, if not prevented altogether, by using cannabinoid compounds prior to the injury. A 2017 study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that rats and mice subjected to TBI showed significantly better recovery. A similar study in 2012 published in Neuropharmacology showed that CBD administration in rats reduced long-term brain injury and restored neurobehavioral function after TBI.
Alternative To NSAIDS
Aside from CBD use for concussions, another major area of study is in the replacement of NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAIDs include drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin, and are extremely widespread in use, with an estimated 30 million NSAIDs taken per day in America. While NSAIDs are generally considered better than opioids for pain, they are not free of side effects, which, in severe cases, can include ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems, kidney damage, and even heart attack. Nearly 15% of NSAID users overdose on the medications, which can lead to not only the above-mentioned problems but also allergies, skin reactions, swelling, wheezing, hives and blisters.
On the other hand, CBD could potentially be used for the same purposes that NSAIDs are used - chiefly inflammation and pain - but CBD does not have these same side effects. In addition, CBD may offer additional benefits that NSAIDs cannot provide, such as anxiety relief and calming of the nervous system, both of which can contribute to future pain: much of the pain people feel comes from tense muscles and nerves.
According to the Harvard Medical School, CBD shows strong potential for relieving chronic inflammation. When applied to the skin, CBD has been shown to lower the pain and inflammation caused by arthritis, and it has the ability to inhibit inflammatory and neuropathic pain, which are two of the most difficult types of pain to treat. More studies need to be conducted, but the initial findings are encouraging.
A 2018 study in Neurology found that CBD binds to the receptors that mediate pain and inflammation, and may desensitizes those receptors, so that both pain and inflammation are decreased.
And while not everything is known about the reasons why CBD decreases inflammation, it has been studied in various forms, from nervous tissue inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, vascular inflammation, and chronic inflammation associated with certain forms of cancer. There is still a lot to be studied about CBD’s mechanisms, but so far everything appears very promising and more and more research dollars are being pumped into the compound every year, as medical organizations and academics are taking more notice of CBD.
Why Professional Football Players Find Benefit in CBD and Cannabis
While the NFL has been slow to accept CBD as an allowed treatment, though much of that reluctance appears to have been officially ended in April 2020, many retired players are strong advocates for CBD. One of the major names involved is Jake Plummer, quarterback for ten years at Arizona and Denver, who threw for more than 30,000 yards and 161 touchdowns. Plummer is part of a campaign called “When the Bright Lights Fade” which advocates, among other things, for the use of CBD for retiring athletes. One of the positions of the group is that CBD should be available to all current athletes and should be removed from the prohibited drug lists. The campaign is raising money to fund further research.
Rob Gronkowski, most famously known as “Gronk,” was a superstar tight end for the Patriots. Over nine seasons he had 521 receptions for 79 touchdowns. He holds the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a single season, as well as being a title holder of many other records. Throughout his career, he experienced many injuries. As a retiree, he has devoted his time and money to promoting treatment of pain through topical CBD compounds. He told CNBC in an interview “My first true experience with it — when I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, this stuff works!’ — is when I jammed my three toes [playing soccer] and they were black and blue. I threw the cream on and, boom, it temporarily relieved the pain… I knew right then and there, I was like, ‘Dang, this stuff works.’”
And NFL legend Brett Favre who had 297 starts over 19 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, has talked often of how his career led to opioid drug addiction and alcoholism to help fight the daily pain. In an interview with InsideHook, he said “I had a bad experience with pain meds and was addicted like no one else. I mean, I was about as hooked as you could get. I don’t want to take anything I can get addicted to and I don’t. When [CBD] was presented to me, my first thought was, ‘Well, I don’t want to be involved in this.’ So I tried the product. It works and it’s non-THC, which is important. Some people probably could care less, but most probably are like me.”
In March 2020, the NFL said that it would remove suspensions for testing positive for cannabis, in what many see as a first step toward authorizing CBD, and that policy is going to be in effect for ten years thanks to a collective bargaining agreement. In other words, while the NFL hasn’t explicitly allowed CBD to be used by players, it will not stand in their way with any penalties, either. And that has been seen as a big win by CBD advocates.