High use, risks of opioid painkillers in former NFL players highlighted

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Opioid use and abuse

Retired NFL players are found to have high rates of opioid pain use and abuse, highlighted in a study.

Investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found 7 percent of former players currently use or abuse opioid drugs to control long-term pain brought about by jarring injuries and collisions associated with football.

They discovered the use of drugs like morphine, Vicodin, codeine and oxycodone among former NFL players is four times that of the general population that also puts their health at risk. Many retired players, also found in the report, are likely to consume alcohol, placing them at risk for overdose.

The study, published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, involved 644 former NFL players who retired between 1979 and 2006. Researchers asked the group about pain levels, injuries, overall health and use of opioid painkillers.

Linda B. Cottler, PhD, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Washington University said the NFL players were asked about pain medicines used during their careers. “More than half used opioids during their NFL careers, and 71 percent had misused the drugs. That is, they had used the medication for a different reason or in a different way than it was prescribed, or taken painkillers that were prescribed for someone else.”

Cottler says the reasons are not entirely clear, but what is obvious is former NFL players are living with a significant amount of pain.

“The rate of current, severe pain is staggering,” she says. “Among the men who currently use prescription opioids — whether misused or not — 75 percent said they had severe pain, and about 70 percent reported moderate-to-severe physical impairment.”

Other findings from the researchers included many NFL players suffered from undiagnosed concussions, with some reporting as many as 200 during their playing career. Simone M. Cummings, PhD, a senior scientist in psychiatry who conducted phone interviews with the former players says they were hesitant to report the injuries for fear of not being able to play. “And if you get taken out of a game too many times, you can lose your spot and get cut from the team.”


The study was funded by a grant from ESPN and the National Institute on Drug Abuse raises concerns about the high rates of opiod use and abuse among former NFL players. Cottler said many are also likely to be drinkers, consuming 14 to 20 drinks a week. “So these men are at elevated risk for potential overdose,” she says.

According to Kyle Turley, in a statement to ESPN, “I know guys that have bought thousands of pills,” Turley said. “Tons of guys would take Vicodin before a game” to deal with injuries.

Cottler says offensive lineman were twice as likely to use of misuse prescription pain medications during their career. “In addition, this group tends to be overweight and have cardiovascular problems, so they represent a group of former players whose health probably should be monitored closely.”

Cottler suggests the health of all former NFL players should be monitored closely. “At the start of their careers, 88 percent of these men said they were in excellent health. By the time they retired, that number had fallen to 18 percent, primarily due to injuries.

After retirement, their health continues to decline. Only 13 percent of retired NFL players report good health, and many live in pain from injuries experienced during their careers. Forty-seven percent reported three or more serious injuries, 61 percent reported knee injuries, and 55 percent say injury ended their career.

The ESPN program “Outside the Lines”, documented one report of a former NFL player taking up to 1,000 Vicodin tablets per month. Another reported ingesting 100 pills per day and spending more than $1,000 per week on painkillers.

The report finds high rates of opioid pain medication use and abuse among former NFL players that the researchers say puts them at high risk for overdose. The researchers found painkiller use among retired player is four times that of the general population from past injuries, unreported concussions and long-term pain issues.

Drug and Alcohol Dependence: doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.12.003
"Injury, pain, and prescription opioid use among former National Football League (NFL) players"
Linda B. Cottler, Arbi Ben Abdallah, Simone M. Cummings, John Barr, Rayna Banks, Ronnie Forchheimer