Prescription Drug Abuse and Chronic Pain among NFL Players

Prescription Drug Abuse and Chronic Pain among NFL Players

While cases of performance-enhancing substance abuse by professional athletes are not unfamiliar to national headlines, what may go unnoticed is the flip-side to the story: drug dependency among pain-stricken athletes. Participating in the most grueling and physically demanding contact sport, American football players are expected to endure pain and continue playing. To maintain performance, players are often advised to take pain medications to numb injury, and inevitably ignore early indications of serious complications.

In October 2009, 10-year pro football veteran Randy Grimes came forward about his condition in hopes of attracting positive reform for the treatment of NFL retirees. Grimes admitted himself to a drug rehabilitation clinic after recognizing that his dependency on prescription pain medication was consuming his life. Sustaining several injuries during his career, Grimes suffers from chronic pain in his knees and neck, requires replacement knee surgery, and cannot get out of bed without the help of pain medications. His dependency became so uncontrollable that Grimes would seek various “health clinics” and take as many as 30 capsules throughout the day—an amount that soars above safe levels. His dependency has become so strong that medical advisors are currently attempting to wean him off the medications just so he can be able to safely go under anesthetic for his much needed knee replacement surgery. After applying for medical assistance, Grimes has been denied coverage by the NFL even though it did not evaluate his condition with an insured physician.

As with any drug addiction, Grimes’s condition has taken an unfortunate toll on his personal life, causing serious distress and emotional instability. Grimes is not left with many options, and considers the rehabilitation program through Behavioral Health of Palm Beach as his only hope. Aside from physical conditions, the NFL has also refused coverage for behavioral health issues to its players. Grimes stands as a single paradigm for what might be an epidemic among retired players. In addition to chronic pain, Grimes experiences opioid addiction, depression, anxiety, and cognitive problems—problems which may be an ominous indication of the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

Organizations that provide medical and disability assistance for and research on former players has been growing in recent years, including: PAST (Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatment); Hall of Famer Mike Ditka’s foundation Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund; Brain Injury Research Institute at Blanchette Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University (BIRI); Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE); and former Buccaneers team president Gay Culverhouse’s own Players Outreach Program.

If the injuries that players sustained during their careers had been properly treated and players were not sent back out on the field after experiencing concussion, these retirees would not be experiencing such extreme dependency on painkillers today or require such extensive medical treatment. CSTE and BIRI’s findings evidence that individuals who have experienced continual damage to the brain (specially multiple concussions) are much more likely to suffer from dementia and depression than the general public. The struggles with mental and cognitive disability are preliminary symptoms of CTE, which progressively develops over time into full-blown dementia. Discovery of CTE in a player during their retired years has made medical assistance so difficult since the NFL insists that the illness occurred after players’ careers.

According to the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research’s study on retired professional football players, retired NFL players are two to five times more likely to suffer from arthritis and joint pain than the regular U.S. male population, and are more likely to experience several categories of health problems, including breathing disorders, organ problems, sleep disorders, certain cardiovascular problems, and cancer.

More predominantly, NFL retirees are much more likely to be heavier drinkers than the regular U.S. male population. In such a brutal and demanding environment, some players have been told that painkillers are the only way to cope with their pain. Sedation may seem to be the only solution to these men who are consistently denied assistance from the NFL, an organization to which they dedicated their lives and their health. In 2008, former Buccaneers lineman Tom McHale died at the age of 45 from prescription drug and cocaine overdose. In 2009, it was confirmed that McHale had been suffering from CTE. Other diagnoses of CTE have now been confirmed in dozens of other retired players, both living and dead.

Medical advisors and retired players alike have remarked on the accessibility of drugs in the locker room; yet the NFL claims that such abuse would have been reprimanded and eligible for criminal investigation. The National Football League is a multi-billion dollar celebrated industry in America that fans, players, owners, sponsors, and media corporations all willingly invest themselves in for the love of the sport. Yet life after NFL for these players remains a long, controversial path of uncertainty, buried by countless legalities and loopholes.

Despite the controversy, advocates like Gay Culverhouse, Randy Grimes, and Mike Ditka are speaking out, not just on behalf of retired players, but for existing players and America’s youth involved in contact sports. According to the National Center of Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.5 million sports-related concussions occur each year in the United States, with youths more likely than adults to experience traumatic brain injury. As long as football remains America’s most celebrated sport, the safety and health of its players remains a social responsibility.

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