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Pain-wise, extending the NFL season may be a really bad idea [Update]

January 28, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is slow to get up after getting a late hit on Jan. 23.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is slow to get up after getting… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )

Pain is part of the lives of professional football players, both current players and retired. Given the high rates of injuries of current players and the chronic health problems retired players endure, one has to wonder about the wisdom of the NFL's plan to extend the regular season to 18 games.

In a study released Friday, researchers found that retired NFL players use pain pills at a much higher rate than the general population and often misuse prescription painkillers. The study looked at 644 former players who retired between 1979 and 2006 and found 7% of the retired players were using painkilling opioid drugs -- four times the rate of the general population. Opioids include morphine, Vicodin, codeine and oxycodone.

More than half of the players said they used opioids during their playing days and 71% had misused the drugs, meaning they used the drug in a different way than it was prescribed or had taken pills prescribed for someone else. About 15% of players who misused the drugs while playing football were still misusing them in retirement.

It's not clear from the study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, whether the former players are dependent on the drugs. But the study does show that former players are in a lot of pain.

"The rate of current, severe pain is staggering," the lead investigator, Linda B. Cottler, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a news release. Only 13% of the men surveyed said they were currently in excellent health but 88% said they were in excellent health when they started their careers.

Half of the players surveyed said they suffered three or more serious injuries in their NFL careers.

The NFL recently issued tighter guidelines about diagnosing concussions and removing players with concussion symptoms from play. About half of the players in the survey said they had suffered at least one concussion while playing, but many said the concussions were not diagnosed and that they continued to play. Using opioids to relieve symptoms of undiagnosed concussions may be one reason so many players misuse painkillers after retirement, Cottler said.

The study was commissioned by ESPN and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Related: Being fit could protect football players' health -- but not 100%

Return to Booster Shots blog.

[For the record: 11:10 a.m. Jan. 28: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Linda Cottler is at the University of Washington. She is at Washington University.]

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