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By Lance Griffin 

Each day, 130 Americans die from opioid overdose. Due to high rates of injury and prescription, athletes are particularly vulnerable. But there is hope: cannabidiol (CBD) has shown significant promise as an alternative.

Opioids can cause dependence and addiction in anyone. They act on mu-opioid receptors in the brain to produce euphoria and pain relief. This is an intense reward that leads to rapid tolerance and dependence. Eventually, patients may require up to ten times their starting dose to manage the same pain. If doses are too high, mu-opioid receptors in the brain stem create severe respiratory depressionthat results in death.

A research survey in Drug and Alcohol Dependence uncovered that NFL players use prescription opioids at three times the rate of the general population. The number of players who misuse reached 71% of those prescribed. Abuse was linked to undiagnosed concussions and significant pain. In the words of retired NFL player, Eugene Monroe, “For too long, I’ve watched my teammates and good friends battle with opioid addiction and leave the game with a long road still ahead; it’s time to make a change.”

CBD may offer that change. In an interview with TMZ, Hall of Fame NFL running back Terrell Davis admitted that CBD would have extended his career: “You can take out the swelling, the inflammation and you can do it in a way that’s natural.”

Topical cannabinoids may be the most widespread use of CBD among athletes due to discretion, convenience, and applicability to local injury. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Monroe said “I like topical forms… I like to rub those in some of my joints that have been injured.” CBD has demonstrated significant promise for analgesia and inflammation, among other benefits. Topical CBD specifically has been shown efficacious for joint pain and inflammation. Importantly, CBD is safe and non-addictive.

Larry Chester, former defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, managed his severe knee injury with opioids. Then he became addicted. “I was eating opioids in some search of relief and I was not finding it,” he said in an interview with CBS. He now rubs topical CBD over his knee and finds relief within 15 minutes.

CBD is not only an alternative to opioids: it may help with addiction itself. Modulating cannabinoid type-1 receptors (CB1) in the brain dampens the rewarding effects of opioids. Exogenous cannabinoids also alleviate withdrawal symptoms associated with opioids, such as involuntary muscle tremors.

Tragically, the use of CBD remains banned by most American professional sports leagues. But in the face of a spiraling opioid epidemic, many athletes are pushing for reform.

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