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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Football and Opioid Addiction

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Addiction

The injuries sustained by football players – and athletes in other contact sports – put players at a higher-than-average risk for opioid addiction due to the need for painkillers. But as scientists are learning more about how contact sports can damage athletes’ brains as well as their bodies, we’re realizing that the link between hard-knock sports and addiction is even stronger than was previously known.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), formerly known by other names such as dementia pugilistica and punch drunk syndrome, has not yet been tied to addiction directly, but it certainly affects the brain in ways that leave players more susceptible to addiction.

This is especially concerning when taking into consideration the fact young men often begin playing contact sports like football in their early teens, or even younger. 

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a type of brain injury that results from repeated blows to the head, or a single severe concussion. It is found most often in athletes who participate in contact sports – such as football, hockey and boxing – as well as in combat veterans.

CTE was the central topic in the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, which was based on a true story.

CTE can lead to neurological and behavioral changes such as:

  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Impulsive behavior, impaired judgment and lack of self-control
  • Agitation and aggression
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty speaking and walking
  • Problems with memory, attention and language

The only way to definitively diagnose CTE is by doing an autopsy of the brain after death, so scientists are still learning about this condition. Because there are other types of conditions that can cause similar symptoms, it can be difficult for doctors to accurately diagnosis CTE in living patients.

In addition, CTE symptoms often don’t manifest until eight to 20 years after players retire.

The Connection Between TAU Proteins, CTE and Opioids

Male Athletes Sports-Related Injury and Opioid Addiction Statistic - Reflections Recovery CenterDoctors are able to diagnose CTE postmortem when they find abnormally high levels of TAU protein and widespread neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) in the brain.

TAU proteins in the brain are always linked with some form of degenerative brain disease. They are found in the brains of athletes with CTE, as well as in those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

One study found that opioid abusers also had greater amounts of TAU proteins in their brains compared to the control group.

Because athletes often use opioid medications for physical injuries, it can be difficult to determine if the buildup of TAU proteins in football players are caused by opioid use, by CTE, or both.

However, there’s clearly a link between brain injury, physical injury, opioid abuse and an unhealthy buildup of TAU proteins that can lead to brain dysfunction and dementia.

Because CTE affects judgment and self-control, athletes with CTE may more easily succumb to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. Additionally, emotional instability caused by CTE can lead to drug use in some cases.

Opioid Addiction from Sports Injuries

Physical injuries suffered by athletes, and the resulting surgeries, can lead to the use of opioid painkiller medications, which can lead to a physical dependence in as little as a week.

Studies have found that opioid abuse is 3 to 4 times higher among NFL football players than in the general population. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson once said, “Pain pills were as common as shoulder pads and cleats” in the locker room.

According to an ESPN survey of 644 former NFL players:

  • 52% of players used painkillers in their playing days.
  • 71% of the players who used opioids also misused them.
  • 15% of those players continued to abuse opioids after retirement.

Interestingly, that same survey found that 98 percent of the NFL players who reported misusing opioid painkillers in the last 30 days also reported having undiagnosed concussions.

High School Football and Opioid Addiction

It’s not only athletes in professional sports who are at risk. Young men in high school sports are routinely exposed to repeated injuries and brain trauma during their developmental years that put them at risk for painkiller abuse and brain damage that could have lifelong consequences.

Because of the time delay between when injuries occur and when the health problems appear, it’s conceivable that the devastating behavioral changes and substance abuse problems that we see with young men in their 20s are actually due to events that transpired during their teenage years.

The problem with young athletes and substance abuse is so concerning that West Virginia is leading a multi-state initiative aimed at helping high school athletes avoid falling victim to the opioid epidemic.

“Many people think injuries are the biggest threat student-athletes will face, but reality shows the medicine they’re prescribed after an injury could present another danger,” says West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Protecting the Health of Our Young Men

Since contact sports – and the injuries that come from them – are a part of life for athletes, it’s important that parents and coaches keep a watchful eye on athletes who are recovering from injuries, especially during the critical developmental years of high school when substance abuse often begins.

If your son has shown signs of painkiller abuse following a sports injury, Reflections Recovery Center is here to help before the problem spirals out of control. Talk to us about your concerns with your son’s painkiller use.

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