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Blunt Trauma: The NFL’s Cannabis Problem

First NFL Player Diagnosed with CTE

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was identified in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu — a neuropathologist who was assigned to perform an autopsy on a 50-year-old man named Mike Webster, otherwise known as the legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 till 1988. Webster then played for the Kansas City Chiefs for two years, finishing up his 17 year career with the NFL in 1990.

Following his long career, Webster encountered one problem after another in his life. He went through periods of homelessness, his marriage broke up, he was unable to gain employment, he was reportedly completely broke and in debt at the time of his death. He struggled greatly with attention deficits and went to illegal and fraudulent lengths to get stimulants like Ritalin to help his brain work better. His family reported that his behavior was often erratic and unpredictable. In the end, Mike Webster was a glorified NFL player who left this world mired in disease and devastation. He ended up dying of a heart attack in September of 2002.

During Webster’s autopsy, Dr. Omalu noted that his deceased patient appeared much older than his recorded age, a testament to the abuse he endured as a man who played for the NFL for nearly two decades. Out of all of the damage that Dr. Omalu assessed, it was Webster’s brain that had an extensive degree of damage that did not coincide with his age. Dr. Omalu stated that Webster’s brain looked like a very elderly person’s brain with Alzheimer’s disease, completely abnormal for a 50-year-old person. His findings became the first conclusive evidence that playing football may result in permanent brain damage. Dr. Omalu diagnosed Mike Webster with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE.) Webster was the first ex-player diagnosed with the condition.

To date, thousands of ex-players or their estates have reported symptoms of CTE. In fact, back in 2013, over 4,500 former players initiated a class action lawsuit against the NFL alleging that the organization failed to protect players from suffering, and failed to inform players of known risks related to head trauma despite an extensive body of medical evidence which indicated the correlation between head-trauma and serious risks of brain injury like CTE. The case was settled, but the problem persists.

What is CTE?

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes who take part in contact sports, members of the military, and others who have experienced some kind of head trauma. Over time, CTE causes certain parts of the brain to atrophy or shrink, while other parts of the brain undergo hypertrophy, or become enlarged. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, lack of impulse control, impaired judgement, severe depression, aggressive behavior, balance and coordination problems, and eventual onset of dementia.

Enter Cannabis: The Superior Neuroprotectant

Advances in science and research have determined that cannabis is a superior neuroprotectant and antioxidant. Even the United States of America government holds a patent on cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. Why? Well, the US government knows that cannabinoids have antioxidant properties which are useful in the treatment and prevention of an extensive array of oxidative stress-related diseases that cause widespread neurological damage. Examples of such diseases include ALS, MS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, heart attack, and arthritis. Plus, the government knows that cannabinoids are important neuroprotectants that can prevent, or at least limit neurological damage related to conditions like CTE. Great! There’s a solution to this CTE issue? Right? Well, not quite if you’re an NFL player.

Current and Past NFL Players Prefer Cannabis

It is well known and widely accepted that NFL players are prone to an extensive list of symptoms related to their profession. Injuries are common. Pain is just a part of the job, and after retirement, pain is just a part of life. Many players hold a prescription for opioid medications, but choose cannabis to treat their pain despite consequences faced if an active player tests positive. Players report that they don’t like how the opioid medications make them feel — fatigue, numbness, apathy, depression, severe gastrointestinal symptoms are common side effects reported by opioid users. Plus the risk of dependency and addiction is a serious and valid concern for anyone who needs long-term pain management treatment. Thankfully, many ex-players report that cannabis relieves pain, improves pain processing and coping abilities, and improves their quality of life overall. As a result, cannabis is the preferred treatment of many ex-players.

Despite Known Benefits, Cannabis Remains a Banned Substance

At the time of this writing, the NFL is making strides toward a better cannabis policy. Research has begun to determine if cannabis is an effective treatment for pain. Ex-players and the current players union are also advocating for cannabis to be removed from the banned substance list. Unfortunately, the NFL currently maintains that cannabis is a banned substance which carries consequences of suspension, fines, and potential legal ramifications if a player tests positive for the substance. Even more unfortunate, by maintaining the ban on cannabis, the NFL continues to squander the opportunity to help their players protect their brains and nervous systems from the damage caused by repeated head trauma and other injuries resulting from intense contact.

In most cases, the career of a professional football player is short-lived, but the damage caused during their careers tend to last a lifetime. The NFL needs to place the health of their players above antiquated rules and policies that perpetuate known harms. The goal should be to reduce and alleviate the problems that Mike Webster, his family, and thousands of other players face since CTE reduction and prevention is feasible with cannabinoid administration. In the end, our greatest athletes deserve to heal and live well on the field, and off the field when they retire. The evidence shows that cannabis helps reduce the harms related to repeated head trauma. The U.S. government agrees that cannabis helps. The NFL needs to agree too.

Marissa Fratoni RN

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