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Study of Retired Football Players Reveals Higher Rates of Painkiller Misuse

February 1, 2011

Playing football takes a heavy toll on one’s body. Most players start playing football in their early teens and retire in their late-20s to early-30s. Post-retirement, their bodies then have to deal with 20 years of physical abuse, serious injuries, and numerous diagnosed and mis-diagnosed concussions. This causes long-lasting physical pain as well as an increased potential for brain disorders. Linda B. Cottler, PhD, and colleagues recently studied how retired NFL players are currently dealing with the pain that lingers from their playing careers.

Cottler and colleagues conducted a 20-minute phone survey of 644 former NFL players who retired between 1979 and 2006. The retired players had an average age of 48 years and played in the NFL for an average of 7.6 seasons. The study breaks the players down into position played and total number of injuries they suffered during their careers. Forty-seven percent of the players had an average of >3 serious injuries and 55% reported that their careers were ended due to injury.

The players were asked about their overall current health as well as level of pain, history of injuries and concussions, and their use of prescription pain pills, both during and after their career. When rating their pain, 75% of the players stated they had severe pain and ~70% reported mild-to-severe physical impairment. Only 26% of the general population suffers from some level of pain.

Of these retired players, 7% are currently taking opioids, which is over 4 times the rate that the general population is taking them. Over 50% of the retired players were using opioids when they played football, and >71% of those players admitted to misusing opioids when they were taking them. Misuse was defined as using the medication for a different reason than it was prescribed and taking a medication that was prescribed to someone else. Another 15% of retired players who acknowledged misusing the medication admitted to misusing it within the past 30 days of the study. Pain, along with undiagnosed concussions, were the main reasons given by the players for their misuse of these medications. Of the players who were using the medications as prescribed, 5% admitted to misusing their prescription within the past 30 days of the study. Fifteen percent of the players that misused opioids as players continued misusing them within the past 30 days of the study.

Finally, 37% of the players reported having physician prescriptions for their opioids while the remaining 63% where given medication from someone other than a physician. These sources included teammates, coaches, trainers, family members, dealer, or off the Internet. The players also noted that all they had to do to get the medication was ask, no prescription was needed during the season.

Alcoholism was the most present comorbidity in these patients, Cottler and colleagues also found that 31% of the players had >15 drinks in the past week and 27% had >20 drinks in the past week. The risk for overdose and death is greatly increased when a patient drinks alcohol on top of their opioid use.

Cottler and colleagues believe that former NFL players need to be better monitored to ensure that they are properly taking their prescribed medications.

Funding for this research was provided by a grant from ESPN and additional funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health. (Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2011;113(3):ePub Ahead of Print). —Christopher Naccari

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From → Drug Abuse

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