NFL, NFLPA seek alternatives to opioids for pain management

The NFL is taking steps to learn more about different ways to help players manage pain.

Last month, the NFL and NFL Players Association asked researchers with experience conducting controlled, experimental studies related to pain management to submit information that may be useful in treating players.

The joint pain management committee comprised of medical experts appointed by the league and the union wants to know about alternatives to opioids, including CBD (cannabidiol) and other cannabis-derivative products, that may help players recover from sports-specific and musculoskeletal injuries.

The committee’s mission is to “improve player health through evidence-based treatment of acute and chronic pain, and to facilitate research to better understand and improve potential alternative treatments.”

“We all recognize that appropriate treatment of pain is an important aspect of not only sports medicine but just medicine in general, so we are always looking at new methods and new techniques for treating pain that will be safer and more effective than opioids,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, told The Associated Press.

The committee conducted two informational forums on CBD in 2020 to learn about its science and manufacturing.

“There is a lot of marketing for these various products but you have to understand that any time we talk about something for NFL athletes, the burden of proof is incredibly high,” Sills said. “NFL players obviously have a tremendous interest in what they put in their bodies and what effects can be. If you’re taking a pain medication, you want to know how does it work on my pain. But you also have to be concerned with does it have any negative impact on performance, because that’s equally important to an NFL player who makes a living in fractions of a second at incredibly high speeds.

“If there’s a compound or a medication that causes someone to lose that edge, lose that speed, something like that, that’s a substantial negative of some kind of treatment there. So I just think that all of those are things that have to be looked at and specifically for CBD and cannaboid derivatives, there just has been not a lot of work done in that specific area, to know how it really impacts performance and specifically for the elite athletes that are NFL players.”

Jim McMahon, a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback and leader of the 1985 Chicago Bears, played through numerous injuries during his career and became addicted to opioids. Now 61, McMahon says he hasn’t taken a painkiller in more than a decade.

“I was eating at least 100 percocets a month just to function, to get out of bed,” McMahon said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “When I moved out here to Arizona, I got my medical marijuana license and I’ve been exclusively using that since and my body feels a hell of a lot better. My mind is a lot clearer. It’s done me wonders.”

Cannabis is a banned substance in the NFL, although rules about players using marijuana were loosened in the latest collective bargaining agreement

Under the most recent labor deal, players who test positive for marijuana are no longer suspended but they can be fined depending on the number of positive tests. Timing of testing was changed to the first two weeks of training camp instead of from April to August. Also, the threshold needed to trigger a positive test was raised fourfold.

“I think it’s headed in the right direction,” McMahon said. “I used throughout my whole career and I never failed a drug test.”

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