How many concussions do we need to witness before a treatment regimen that includes cannabis takes hold?
Despite the NFL’s $1 million investment in studying cannabis’ potential for improving post-concussion outcomes — and the conclusive evidence of its benefits — the league has yet to implement comprehensive policies allowing for its use in treatment and recovery, even though the incidence of concussions continues to rise.
Recently, Miami Dolphins fans and millions on television watched as star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lay motionless for several minutes after a crushing tackle that caused a concussion. On another week, six NFL players suffered concussions.
I run the Sports Medicine Subdivision of the Global Cannabis and Psychedelics Laboratory at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies.
After witnessing this unsettling increase in concussions in the NFL, my team and I asked the question: When is it enough before a treatment regimen that includes cannabis is taken seriously?
And it’s not just the NFL. The World Cup — soccer’s premier event — is set to begin Sunday in Qatar. Those who play soccer, or that other “football” sport, also suffer a staggering number of concussions — second only to American football.
For the NFL, 26 of its 32 teams are located in states that have legalized cannabis.
Yes, there have been revisions to the cannabis use policy after negotiations with the NFL Players Association. These revisions allow for more leniency in testing limits, but still hold potential for fines and suspensions after consecutive positive tests. Specific to Tagovailoa’s situation, what is the implementation of cannabis allowance after a player concusses? There is emerging evidence, especially over the past 5 years, showing improvements in post-concussion outcomes among those who consume cannabis compared to those that do not. Will Tua and other recent players who have suffered concussions in the game be offered cannabis as part of their short- and long-term recovery?
Cannabis has been shown to reduce inflammation and assist in rebuilding connections within the brain (neuroplasticity) that were damaged via concussion or during recovery. There are ongoing studies funded by the NFL and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study cannabis, concussions, and concussions’ side effects.
One of the biological reasons cannabis can influence our health, especially after concussions, is because of its near-perfect match with a vital system within the human body — the endocannabinoid system — responsible for maintaining the body’s balance. Imagine all the organs in our body have a puzzle piece (receptor) waiting for a matching puzzle piece, and cannabis has over 180 of them called cannabinoids. CBD and THC are the most well-known and studied cannabinoids in the United States and have both been shown to impact inflammation and neuroplasticity along with other health benefits, leading to significant shifts in the acceptance of cannabis use in our national society.
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Of course, there is a portion of the population that may not experience the benefit of cannabis. Though studies are still being conducted for validation, it is possible that this may be due to a person’s baseline endocannabinoid system. If the baseline is already in balance, introducing cannabis may over-supplement the endocannabinoid system and cause imbalance, leading to negative health impacts. Since most receptors for THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, are in the brain, over-supplementation may lead to mental health imbalances in some consumers. Therefore, it is critical to recognize that “not all cannabis is created equal.” Additionally, most to-date research on the potential benefits of cannabis have been related to CBD, thus support for additional studies on other cannabinoids and their potential health benefits is more important than ever.
Our sports medicine laboratory is focused on providing evidence on the potential of cannabis and psychedelics to improve the negative mental and physical health status of NFL and NCAA players before, during and after the game. Our team, which provides lectures, workshops, and seminars at conferences, includes Tywan G. Martin, associate professor in the University of Miami Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, and former NFL stars Mike James (Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Boo Williams (New Orleans Saints).
Science has provided evidence on the potential benefit of cannabis use for post-concussion, post-traumatic brain injury and also, independent of injury, as part of wellness treatment to reduce inflammation.
It is well past time that policies be changed in professional sports to allow players the freedom of choice to obtain the health care resources and best options available to facilitate their recovery.
Denise C. Vidot is a cannabis epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies.