John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
The zenith of the professional football season arrives February 6, better known this year as Super Bowl Sunday. All the speed, power, finesse and glitz of the game as it is played at the highest level will be on display under the bright lights of Cowboys Stadium. But there is also a dark side to the sport, as has become apparent in recent years with a growing body of research on the kinds of serious, long-term risks—such as brain damage and clinical depression—that repeated concussions can bring.
Now a new study resurfaces another hidden cost of the violent and injurious sport—the potential for reliance on or misuse of prescription pain medication. A survey of 644 retired NFL players found that during their playing days, more than half of the players used prescription opioids such as hydrocodone or oxycodone. And most of the players who used painkillers obtained the medication not from a physician but from "a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the Internet," according to an ESPN report. The study, funded by an unusual partnership of ESPN and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was published online January 28 in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Of the respondents who used opioids as players, 71 percent reported "misusing" them—using more than prescribed or obtaining them without the guidance of a prescribing physician. More troubling, perhaps, is that for some players the misuse of painkillers did not end with their playing careers, according to ESPN:
When asked about their prescription painkiller use within the past 30 days, 7 percent of the retired players surveyed said they either used more prescription pain medication than prescribed by their doctors, used the medication without a prescription at all, or both.
That is three times the rate among all U.S. males age 26 and up, according to one national survey. ESPN interviewed Dan Johnson, a tight end for the Miami Dolphins from 1983–1987, who said he became addicted following two back surgeries to address football injuries. "I was taking about a thousand Vicodins a month," he told the sports network. "You know, people go, ‘That’s impossible. You’re crazy.’ No, that was exactly what I was taking."
The publication of the study is not the first time that the role of prescription pills in football has been called to light. In the 1990s, star quarterback Brett Favre, then with the Green Bay Packers, entered rehab for addiction to Vicodin, a medication he had begun taking to counter the aches and pains of playing the game.
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