CBD in Cannabis May Help Athletes With Pain, Concussion Symptoms
Specifically, the researchers involved in the study will evaluate the anti-pain and anti-inflammatory potential of a cannabis ingredient called cannabidiol (CBD). This substance is produced from hemp and contains only minuscule traces of THC, the psychoactive compound responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects.
The backers of this initiative are an eclectic mix: five ex-professional football players, a Colorado hemp product retailer called CW Botanicals, the nonprofit marijuana advocacy group Realm of Caring, and scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Active and retired NFL players are being recruited to participate in the project, which will evaluate cannabidiol’s capacity to relieve pain from injury and counteract the disturbing symptoms of CTE, a condition of the brain caused by repeated blows to the head.
Opioids in the NFL
Many current and past NFL players rely on opioid painkillers to help them cope with chronic aches and pains, or to help them make it through rehabilitation when more serious injuries occur. Because narcotic drugs are so addictive, NFL trainers, team doctors and the NFL Players Association would all like to find safer alternatives to these medications, which have sent an untold number of players into rehab for addiction.
Cannabidiol was once used exclusively to treat epilepsy in children, but when its pain-relieving abilities were discovered, some people began using it as a replacement for opioid medications and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. Cannabidiol is produced from hemp, which is not the same as marijuana, but despite its lack of intoxicating qualities its association with cannabis has seemingly prevented it from moving into wider use.
Present and former NFL players are well represented among users of CBD, and now that word has gotten out, other current and ex-players are interested in learning more. For current players, discretion is necessary, however, since the NFL has a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis products. If a player tests positive for marijuana or a similar substance, he could be subject to more frequent drug testing, fines, suspensions and ultimately unemployment, along with the public embarrassment of being labeled a drug user.
It is ironic that NFL teams willingly pass out highly addictive narcotic painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and codeine to its players, while banning a cannabis product with no mind-altering capacity. Players don’t face banishment or risk losing their salary because they’ve been abusing painkillers, even though such abuse is known to be rampant and can have terrible consequences. In a 2011, Washington University in St. Louis study on prescription drug use in the NFL, 52% of retired NFL players reported using opioid painkillers during their careers, and more than seven in 10 admitted to struggling with opioid addiction at some point in time.
Cannabidiol offers great promise as a substitute, but unfortunately the evidence for this is more anecdotal than scientific. The “Bright Light” research project is designed to address this problem, and if positive results are obtained, it is hoped the NFL will amend its anti-drug policy to allow for CBD’s use.
Can CBD Relieve Symptoms of Brain Injuries?
Cannabidiol can undoubtedly help relieve chronic physical discomfort and pain, but the backers of the “Bright Lights” project believe it can do even more. They claim it can also help ameliorate the symptoms of concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a serious degenerative neurological condition that results from multiple instances of head trauma.
The sports world has been rocked to its core by the revelation that CTE is exceptionally common among current and ex-NFL and college players, who compete in a game where head injuries are routine and the pressure to return to the playing field quickly is great. Post-mortem examinations of the brains of football players (some of whom died quite young) have revealed the presence of damage consistent with CTE in more than 90% of cases, and lawsuits charging neglect and coverup have been filed by former players and their families against the NFL as a result of these findings.
CTE can be a life-threatening or life-shortening condition, and it is possibly the gravest health risk young men playing football face.
The signs of CTE include:
- Memory loss
- Migraine headaches
- Disorientation and confusion
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Uncontrollable tremors
- Loss of muscular strength and flexibility
- Slurred speech
- Increasingly erratic, paranoid or hostile behavior
- Progressive dementia
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
If the “Bright Lights” study finds that cannabidiol can help relieve the symptoms of CTE and concussions in addition to chronic pain, this could represent a significant breakthrough. Football players and others who compete in contact sports like boxing, wrestling, hockey and rugby could benefit tremendously from painkilling substances that are nonaddictive and capable of mitigating a wide variety of physically and psychologically debilitating symptoms. Opioids are not a good long-term solution, since they don’t help with CTE and tend to create drug addicts just as efficiently as they relieve pain.
CBD Is No Panacea
We must of course be careful not to oversell the potential of cannabidiol as a remedy for the chronic pain of football players. CBD can help mask pain but it will neither eliminate the underlying physical conditions responsible for it nor make contact sports like football safer.
Young people who choose to play football at the high school, collegiate or professional level are pursuing a dangerous activity. Rule changes and/or improvements in protective equipment may be necessary if the game is to survive into the 22nd century, and the presence of a safer painkiller will do nothing to change that reality.