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Marijuana and Professional Sports: Can It Work?

A tackle in a football rugby match is like a car crash.

So, if you’re in 30 crashes on a Sunday evening, your body will be in pain for several days. 

When playing such games back-to-back: it can be tempting to wake up the morning after and take some anti-inflammatory medication-  naproxen, paracetamol or even something “stronger” like tramadol or fentanyl.

The downside: with time, these painkillers can become your quick,  go-to fix and this can sometimes progress to  a necessity.  

With over sixty percent of amateur athletes relying on ibuprofen and other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories to boost their recovery (or performance) weekly, it’s clear that the use of opioid painkillers in professional sports is slowly reaching epidemic proportions.  

The Opioid Epidemic in Professional Sports 

As trainers and team doctors continue to prescribe  players with opioid-based painkillers, the effects of the opioid epidemic continue to be registered and reported. 

The USA Department of Health and Human Services reported that 11.5 million citizens misused prescription opioids in 2016. In that same year, 42,249 people died from an opioid overdose. 

The situation is worse in Florida.

The state experienced a surge in opioid-related deaths from 350 in 2000 to over 2000 in 2010. Florida ranked fourth in the USA for opioid-related deaths in 2015; by the CDC. The state experienced 3,228 deaths that year, a 23% increase from 2014. And the upward trend seems to continue amid the pandemic. 

When it comes to professional sports: players are more likely to (mis)use opioid painkillers than the general public. 

An ESPN survey involving 644 former NFL players found that 71% of players misused prescribed opioid painkillers. The high figure was backed by a 2011 survey conducted by the Elsevier Journal to determine Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The survey found that retired NFL players were 3X more likely to use opioids than the general public. 

Seeing that higher usage comes with devastating side effects: some players have even sued professional sports leagues. In 2018, a group of over 1800 retired players sued the National Football League (NFL), alleging to have been supplied with prescriptions aimed at keeping them on the field without being informed about the negative health effects of these medications. 

Fortunately, the government is aware about the epidemic, and some states are issuing emergency declarations. In October 2017, President Trump declared the epidemic a public health emergency. 

Can medical marijuana serve as a safer alternative for opioid-based prescription painkillers?

In response to the opioid epidemic, many athletes are turning to marijuana for pain relief. 

Martellus Bennet, a retired NFL player, told the Bleacher Report that:

“You don’t want to be popping pills all the time. There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys, and things like that.”

His view on opioid painkillers was backed by Eugene Monroe, a former NFL player. In his interview with Washington Post, Monroe noted that:

“This pain is never going away. My body is damaged. I have to manage it somehow. Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of [marijuana].” 

Monroe’s perspective is being  backed increasingly by science.

In a study involving medical cannabis patients, many respondents claimed that cannabis provided relief similar to opioid painkillers but without the side effects. Ninety-seven percent agreed that using cannabis helped them significantly reduce their opiate dosages. 

Eighty-one percent of those medical cannabis patients agreed that consuming cannabis alone was more effective than combining it with opioids. 

A different study concluded that when cannabis is combined with opioid prescriptions, it can lower the infamous  side effects of opioid. It can also reduce opioid dependency, lowering the risk of an overdose. 

So it’s logical to assume that medical marijuana can serve as a safer alternative for opioid-based prescription painkillers. 

Does that mean we can use marijuana for CTE, too?

In addition to its potential pain management properties, some studies suggest that cannabis could help combat CTE. 

CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease. It’s present in persons with a history of symptomatic concussions, asymptomatic subconcussive hits, and other repetitive brain trauma. 

It’s common among football, hockey, and rugby players. Professional sports that involve high-impact strikes upon physical contact. 

As mentioned, there are numerous ongoing researches designed to evaluate whether cannabis can help combat CTE.

In 2013, a collaborative study found that cannabis could regenerate brain cells and increase blood flow to injured or damaged brain cells in mice. That would, in turn, keep brain cells healthier by enhancing blood circulation. 

Another animal study done by the National Institute of Mental Health discovered that CBD and THC – active compounds in cannabis – can reduce toxicity in the brain. 

In addition, a collaborative study by Tel Aviv University found that low doses of cannabis could facilitate long-term recovery of traumatic brain injuries. 

Although these studies are animal-based, they seem promising. 

Other studies suggest that medical marijuana can possibly  help  treat CTE symptoms, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, and insomnia. 

For example, research done by the Dent Neurologic Institute in Buffalo used medical cannabis in people dealing with concussion-based chronic pain. The researchers evaluated common concussion symptoms, including mood, sleep, and attention. 

The results?

Eighty percent of the patients treated with medical cannabis experienced substantial improvement in symptoms and activity level. Seeing that the said symptoms are also linked to CTE, the study indicates that medical marijuana can help CTE patients manage their symptoms. 

A 2018 review acknowledged the ability of cannabis to treat common CTE symptoms, such as agitation, psychosis, dizziness, and nausea. A different study indicated that cannabis compounds could help treat traumatic brain injuries.

So, while the evidence is preliminary and based on animal studies, the efficacy of medical cannabis in combating CTE looks promising. 

With these speculated benefits, where does cannabis stand in the world of sports?

How is marijuana treated in the world of sports?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibits the use of cannabis  in professional competitions. And the presiding agencies (NBA, NFL, and the like) take that ban seriously. 

That may explain why professional players who publicly voice their support for medical cannabis (for use in pain relief) often find it hard to participate in professional matches. 

Take Monroe, for example. In 2016, he became the first NFL player to publicly voice his support for medical cannabis (over opioid painkillers.) He went on to donate $80,000 to, “When the Bright Lights Fade”- a campaign dedicated to funding research on the potential benefits of cannabis for athletes. 

As a result of his support, Monroe was let go from his team (Baltimore Ravens.) Speculating, his departure from the Ravens could have been a result of his injuries, but comments from his head coach John Harbaugh, suggest otherwise. While Monroe was voicing his support, Harbaugh told reporters:

 “I promise you he does not speak for the organization.”

Keep in mind, this  statement came after the team owner’s meeting which was held in March 2016.

Currently, MMJ cardholders participating in professional sports must avoid cannabis. After all, testing positive for THC is enough to have you banned from the sport. 

On the bright side, WADA allows a THC limit of up to 150ng/ml which is adequate leeway for athletes who use medical marijuana cards or recreational cannabis. Still: you should stop using cannabis weeks before the competition. 

Cannabis advocates are pushing for legalization in use of sports. Their argument is: medical marijuana is an effective pain reliever. It’s also safer than opioid-based prescription painkillers issued by team doctors. 

To that end, sports organizations remain optimistic about the medical benefits of cannabis.

For instance: In an interview with Slam Online, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pointed that,

“I would say it’s something we will look at. I’m very interested in science when it comes to medical marijuana. But to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it.” 

The future is uncertain, but regardless of what’s in store for the use of cannabis in professional sports, opioid is here to stay. 

Can cannabis topicals help with sports injuries?

CBD topical has been shown to aid recovery after sports in several ways. 

Firstly, cannabis topicals can be applied directly to the injured area to deliver targeted relief. Which makes them ideal for addressing sports injuries, such as muscle pain, joint pain, and inflammation. 

But are they effective?

A research report published by Neurotherapeutics highlighted that marijuana helps activate and inhibit pain regulating compounds. 

Here’s some Biology:

Anandamide is a pain-regulating compound. CBD – a compound in marijuana – stops anandamide from being absorbed, which would otherwise increase its concentration in the blood and consequently, results in less pain. 

Cannabis topicals also actively limit inflammation in the brain and the nervous system; thereby, reducing pain and specific immune-system responses. That, in turn, helps you heal faster. 

There are yet to be more human-based studies to determine the potential of CBD in relieving pain. Nonetheless, animal studies prove that marijuana reduces inflammation and pain.

What Are The Benefits of Using Cannabis Topicals to Address Sports Injuries?

Why consider cannabis topicals when you’ve relied on over-the-counter painkillers for so long and they’re working just fine?  

Here are three reasons why:

#1: Cannabis topicals deliver focused pain-relief

When you ingest paracetamol and other OTC pain pills, the pill is digested, absorbed into the bloodstream, and circulated to different body parts.

As such, the pill addresses the pain while impacting your whole body. (Which explains why OTC painkillers may have multiple side effects on different areas of the body.)

On the other end, cannabis topicals – think:  pain relief oils, creams, roll-on, or sprays – are massaged or sprayed on the injured area. These products do not penetrate the skin; hence, they are not absorbed into the bloodstream. Instead, they remain on the skin, providing focused, fast-action, and effective relief.

The best part? They work in cases of aching quads, pain in the bones, sprains, or even extensive injuries. 

#2: Cannabis topicals have little-to-no side effects

You’re already suffering extreme pain from sports injuries; why add side effects to it?

OTC medications often have devastating side effects, including drowsiness, nausea, and a weakened immune system. They are also addictive, which means more negative health effects the more you become dependent on them. 

Cannabis topicals, on the other end, have little to no side effects. The reason is, marijuana works alongside compounds already present in your body. It only helps them perform at their peak efficiency and restore the body to a stable, relaxed state. 

Cannabis topicals ensure optimal cell function and enzyme action. They help restore the body to its optimal functioning capacity. As a result, they help reduce pain and boost immunity, all without side effects. (Even when using THC-based topicals. Because these products are not absorbed into the bloodstream, they remain on the applied area, thereby delivering fast pain relief without altering your mental clarity.) 

#3: Cannabis topicals deliver long-lasting relief

Topical cannabis helps treat short-term and chronic pain.

Hence, sports professionals use them to reap the long-term therapeutic benefits, lowering their risk of developing chronic pain conditions like arthritis. 

Caution: when purchasing cannabis topicals, ensure your product of choice is of good quality. It should also be organic and chemical-free. While at it, take note of the active compounds. Are they full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, or isolated?

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