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The NFL Considers Cannabis as an Alternative to Opioids for Pain Management

March 16, 2021 10:30 am ET
The NFL Considers Cannabis as an Alternative to Opioids for Pain Management

Professional athletes deal with a lot of physical wear and tear. They put their bodies through the grind. And those who play contact sports, like football, are particularly prone to painful and lasting injury. Common football injuries include ligament tears, shoulder dislocations, and damage to the knees, ankles, and other joints. Though these athletes are physically strong and generally capable of healing at a quick rate, the damage they take has the potential to leave them in a state of chronic pain. For that reason, the NFL takes issues of athlete pain management seriously. The League has specific standards to which every player and every team must adhere when it comes to managing pain.

In the past, pain management options have included opioids. But because of the risk of dependence inherent in the use of opioids as treatment, the NFL has a vested interest in finding other methods of combating pain—especially chronic pain—among its players.

The NFL Files a Request for Information

In February of this year, in the interest of moving toward better overall player health, the NFL filed a Request for Information (RFI) about pain management as it related to athletics and athletic performance. Though the request was fairly open-ended, the NFL did give suggestions as to the kind of information that would be welcome. Specifically, they mentioned non-pharmacological pain interventions, including CBD. They’re also seeking any information as to what the overall impact of CBD use might be on the body of an athlete, or on his athletic performance.

The NFL’s Pain Management Committee (PMC) has in the past expressed interest and is now following through, on finding alternatives to opioids to help manage pain among players in order to minimize the risks of dependence. 

A Request for Information is a promising development, but it is not actually a promise. It must be noted that, although the NFL’s PMC is making the effort to learn more about the various pain management techniques it might offer to its players, it has not yet dedicated any money to the pursuit. No studies have been commissioned. We hope the PMC will continue to follow through on this line of questioning by finding a worthy study and funding it, allowing new information about cannabis to come to light. If that does happen, it’s likely that the NFL’s quest for knowledge will benefit not only football players but the rest of us as well

What Information Will Be Found?

Assuming a study does take place, we can certainly hazard a guess at what kind of information will be found. That’s because the NFL isn’t the first organization to investigate the idea of replacing opioid treatments with cannabis. 

A 2019 study conducted by chronic pain specialist Dr. Kevin Rod, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, instructed patients to taper their daily opioid doses in exchange for increasing doses of cannabis. Over 75% of the study’s participants decreased their overall opioid use by the time the study ended, and 25% of the participants ceased using opioids at all. Another study, conducted last year, found that 40% of its chronic pain patients were successfully able to replace opioids with medical cannabis.

Obviously, these numbers are not perfect, and we’d like to see a study in which every participant was successfully able to make the switch. Still, it’s encouraging news and should make the NFL feel hopeful that there is good information out there that will help them and their players. Any time we can replace opioid treatment with cannabis, eliminating the risk of life-destroying dependence, we have to count it as a win.  

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