Feb 10, 2022
NFL, UCSD to Study Marijuana and Pain Management in Athletes

The National Football League is giving UC San Diego $500,000 to study whether marijuana can be effectively used to help athletes manage pain from injuries and recover more quickly, according to a recent story from the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Though funded by the NFL, the research will be done on professional rugby players. This is due in part because marijuana is a banned substance in the NFL, which has among the highest injury rates of any major team sport.

marijuanaUCSD told the Union-Tribune the study will involve administering THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, and cannabidiol (CBD), the second most-active ingredient. The NFL awarded the contract to UCSD’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, one of the oldest and largest programs of its kind in the country, according to the Union-Tribune.

The lead researcher, Dr. Mark Wallace, director of the Center for Pain Medicine at UCSD, spoke with the Union-Tribune about the partnership.

Below is an excerpt from that Q&A session.

Q: The NFL has greatly relaxed its rules pertaining to cannabis. The league still does some testing for THC. But it no longer suspends players if they test positive. Instead, it issues fines and guides some players into treatment programs.

A: The NFL knows that players and many elite athletes are using cannabis for sports-related injuries and recovery. But there’s no science behind it. They’re looking for the science. I think they’re also looking for alternatives to opioids because a very high percentage of players are exposed to them and many of them remain on opioids after they retire.

Q: How much is known about cannabis, beyond anecdotal claims?

A: Most of the evidence we have comes from the use of cannabis in chronic pain, mostly neuropathic pain. But there are almost no studies looking at the use of cannabis to treat acute pain, which includes pain after surgery and injury.

The cannabinoid receptor (CB) is one of the most abundant receptors in our body and is linked to reducing pain and inflammation. The CB1 receptor is located on nerves, spinal cord, and brain, and activation results in pain reduction.

The CB2 receptor is located on our inflammatory cells and stimulation reduces activity in these cells leading to reduced inflammation.

Q: The study you’re embarking on involves professional rugby players instead of NFL players. Why?

A: It is due to feasibility and logistics. San Diego has close ties to the professional rugby community. And its players come closest to what NFL players experience in terms of injuries.

Tom and I also made this decision because cannabis is still a banned substance in the NFL, but it’s not in professional rugby. The professional rugby community has been very enthusiastic and responsive about participating in a study like this. We’re in negotiations right now with rugby teams and players on the West Coast.

We’re hoping to carry out a successful clinical trial in that sport and then, hopefully, open it up to NFL players.

To read the full story from the San Diego Union-Tribune about the NFL’s study on marijuana and pain management, click here. 

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