Retired Pro Football Players Abuse Painkillers

Professional football players often sustain serious injury during practice and games, with many injuries resulting in chronic pain and the need for prescription painkillers. The painkillers used are often highly addictive opioids, causing a dependence problem that persists long after the player retires.

A recent study examined the use of painkillers among retired NFL players and found that their dependence is much higher than that of the general population. The study, conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, was published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The researchers, led by Linda B. Cottler, PhD, professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Washington University, examined the painkiller use of 644 retired NFL players who had left the game between 1979 and 2006. They were interviewed about general health, occurrences of pain, injury and concussion history and their use of prescription painkillers.

The findings showed that the retired football players were using opioid painkillers at a rate of 7 percent, drastically higher than the general population. Opioids, while commonly prescribed for pain under the specific drugs morphine, Vicodin or oxycodone, can be highly addictive.

The researchers also found that more than half of the players had used opioids during their football careers and over two-thirds had used the drugs in ways other than prescribed by their doctors. The players had used the medication for alternate reasons than those for which it was prescribed, or they were "borrowing" opioids from other people.

The results showed that the players who did not follow the instructions given by their physician for reducing pain, but instead misused the drugs, were more likely to continue misusing them after retiring from the game. By contrast, only 5 percent of those players that took the drugs as instructed had difficulty with misuse after retirement.

The researchers believe that heavy injury and collisions are the initial reason that opioids are sought out during football play, but the injuries often cause chronic pain. Continued use of opioids can often lead to addiction and abuse.

While the researchers could not conclusively determine whether the retired players were dependent on the drugs, it was clear that pain from earlier days persisted into retirement. Approximately 75 percent of the men who reported using opioids also report the occurrence of severe pain. Pain, the researchers found, was one of the main predictors of misuse among the retired players.

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