What Effect Can Painkillers Have on NFL Players' Concussions?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 8, 2012

Former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn alleges the NFL's treatment of his concussions with painkillers has led to permanent brain injury.
Former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn alleges the NFL's treatment of his concussions with painkillers has led to permanent brain injury.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

There's a dark cloud hanging over the New Orleans Saints. GM Mickey Loomis, suspended head coach Sean Payton and interim head coach Joe Vitt have all been implicated in a scandal whose repercussions could spell the end of the NFL as we know it.

I'm talking, of course, about painkillers.

Painkillers make top-flight football possible. With dozens of 200- and 300-pound men running into each other at top speed dozens of times per game, aches, pains, bruises and sprains are never-ending. So are knocks to the head.

To play through those injuries, to recover from them and to face practice on Wednesday, NFL players need their painkillers—and they're especially effective for treating concussions.

According to the Saints' former security chief, Geoffrey Santini, Loomis tried to cover up hard evidence of Vitt stealing painkillers from team facilities. Payton also obtained large amounts of painkillers via the team, despite having no known condition requiring them.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints watches his team before they take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Santini's allegations couldn't be more serious: Loomis, he claimed, ordered staff to forge prescription logs to cover up Vitt's raiding of the painkiller cookie jar—a felony to cover up a felony. Rather than dispute his lawsuit in court or reach a settlement, the Saints executed an arbitration clause in Santini's contract, and the matter was dropped...and forgotten.

But Joe Horn hasn't forgotten about the Saints' abuse of painkillers.

The former Pro Bowl wide receiver played for the Saints from 2000 to 2006, and in 2011 he joined 11 other players in suing the NFL. Their lawsuit alleges the NFL failed to protect players from, or inform them of the risks of, their brain injuries—and moreover, made things worse by masking the symptoms of concussions and post-concussion syndrome by prescribing painkillers like Toradol.

Unlike narcotic, addictive painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin, Toradol is an NSAID like Advil or Aleve. Its powerful anti-inflammatory properties make it perfect for NFL pain relief. Back in January, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told HBO he's taken Toradol to play through pain between 40 and 50 times.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 11: Brian Urlacher #54 of the Chicago Bears looses his helmut after tackling Jason Snelling #44 of the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field on September 11, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Falcons 30-12. (Photo by Jon
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Toradol is quite effective at treating concussion and post-concussion syndrome symptoms. In fact, the players' lawsuit alleges, it allowed players to play through concussion symptoms that would otherwise have sidelined them. If the players' allegations are true, dozens of players per team got Toradol shots before every game in a painkilling "cattle call."

Once someone has suffered a concussion, the chances of suffering a repeat injury increase. If players are taking Toradol to prevent or treat joint pain, they may not be able to tell when they've had a concussion, and their risks dramatically increase.

The symptoms Joe Horn and the other plaintiffs are suffering now could be the earliest symptoms of CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. Tom McHale, an offensive guard who played nine seasons in the NFL, suffered from an advanced, undiagnosed, case of CTE.

UNIONDALE, NY - DECEMBER 02: Derek Boogaard #94 of the New York Rangers fights with Trevor Gillies #14 of the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on December 2, 2010 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

McHale's judgment and impulse control were severely impaired from the CTE, and he struggled greatly with addiction. Time and time again, he was unable to stay away from his only escape: painkillers.

McHale, much like hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard, died of a drug overdose. Boogaard, like McHale, was diagnosed after his death with CTE. Both experienced memory loss and severe personality changes during their long descent to the bottom.

According to an ESPN survey, of former NFL players who still abuse painkillers, 98 percent say they suffered undiagnosed concussions during their playing days (as opposed to 79 of non-painkiller-abusing retirees). According to a study published in the medical journal Drug & Alcohol Dependence, NFL veterans abuse painkillers at a rate four times higher than the general population.

Painkillers let players work through concussions, make them more susceptible to concussions, less likely to realize they've had concussions and their concussions more severe. After their playing days are over, painkillers can become the disease, rather than the treatment.

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