Retired National Football League players who abused opioid painkillers while active were most likely to use and abuse the same drugs after leaving the sport, the results of a telephone survey and analysis found.
The survey found more than half of the retired NFL players interviewed used opioid painkillers during their career. Of those, 71 percent reported misusing the drugs while playing, and 15 percent said they still abuse the prescription medication, Dr. Linda B. Cottler, of Washington University School of Medicine, and colleagues reported online in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
The former broadcaster and NY Giants great, Frank Gifford, said, “pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors.”
The findings from Cottler’s survey support Gifford’s assessment.
An analysis of survey data showed the rate of opioid misuse while the retired players were active in the NFL was roughly three times greater than the lifetime rate of nonmedical use of opioids in the general population of approximately the same age.
Misuse in the past 30 days in retired players was seven percent, versus less than two percent in adults 26 and older in the general population. Looking only at men in the general population, the abuse rate is about two and half percent.
The final sample included 644 former players listed in the 2009 Retired NFL Football Players Association Directory who had retired from 1979 to 2006 and had at least one phone number listed.
They completed a phone interview that discussed general demographic data, health status, pain, impairment, alcohol use, prescription opioid use, and illicit drug use. Prescription opioid use was measured for while a player was active as well as over the past 30 days. Participants were categorized into users and nonusers. Users were subcategorized as having used the drugs as prescribed, or having misused them.
Misuse was defined as taking more of the drug than prescribed, using it in a way other than prescribed, using it after a prescription ended, using it for a different reason, or using it without a prescription.
When compared against players prescribed opioids while in the NFL and with those who were non-users during their NFL careers, 17 percent of those who misused while playing used as prescribed in the past 30 days, 15 percent misused in the past 30 days, and 68 percent reported no use.
In a multivariate analysis, moderate to severe pain, undiagnosed concussions, and drinking 20 or more alcoholic drinks a week were the strongest predictors of misuse. Undiagnosed concussions were reported by 81 percent of misusers.
"This association might have been due to the fact that those who choose not to report concussions are the same players who choose not to reveal their pain to a physician, thus managing their pain on their own," the researchers wrote. "They may believe that if they report a concussion, they will be pulled from active play."
The researchers noted the study may have been limited by lack of detailed pain information from while a player was active, a small sample size, a more inclusive definition of misuse that included abuse of opioids a player was prescribed, and a sample that included potentially more-healthy-than-average retired footballers — the researchers noted interviews with former players not in the Retired Players Association uncovered "multiple examples of serious and heavy opioid abuse."
They added that future research could measure number of alcoholic drinks and level of pain while active in the NFL against opioid use and abuse.