Sports Injuries and Chronic Pain: Cannabis Helps a Former Football Pro
Former NFL player Brandon Haw turned to cannabis to find relief from the physical, mental, and emotional pain he endured from various injuries suffered throughout his career. Here is his story.
Many boys dream of playing professional football, but few of them ever consider the risks that go along with the glory. Former NFL player Brandon Haw was no different. Haw began playing football when he was just eight years old, and back then, his attention was focused on the challenges inherent in the game, and on the fame and fortune that he hoped would someday follow; he did not consider the physical dangers that he would face on the field, nor the toll the game would ultimately take on his health, mental state, and relationships.
Having His Head in the Game
After a successful college career, Brandon was ultimately drafted by the NFL in 2004, spending the next few years bouncing from team to team, including the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Diego Chargers, the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins, and the Seattle Seahawks. Through all of these moves, he just accepted the weekly injuries and head impacts as a normal part of the life of a football player—especially a defensive lineman charged with tackling the opponent. Ibuprofen was also a constant companion. “I got terrible migraines on a weekly basis,” he explains. “So I always had a bottle of Motrin with me. It was my go-to pain killer.”
As his body took a pounding on the field in game after game, over time he felt his easy-going nature start to slip away and be replaced by bouts of extreme irritability and impatience. He became uncharacteristically moody and developed a new tendency to anger quickly, which caused his personal relationships to suffer.
Could it be CTE?
What he did not question was whether the new behaviors could be related to the frequent blows he had taken to his head during play. Today, there is growing interest in the medical field in a diagnosis called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by repetitive head injuries and leads to a decline in mental cognition or dementia, as well as depression. Other symptoms include aggression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
While scientists are still looking for ways to formally diagnose CTE in the living (currently it can only be made post mortem), many NFL players and other athletes, including Brandon, experience symptoms that are consistent with this diagnosis. (In fact, the Boston University CTE Center, in conjunction with the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank has studied the brain tissue of 94 deceased NFL players and discovered that 90 of them had evidence of CTE.) Sadly, many professional athletes with signs of CTE have taken their own lives, perhaps out of despair.
Recognizing the Changes
For Brandon, the mental changes he experienced were subtle, but they progressed over time, especially as he neared the end of his career. “At first I just thought the changes I noticed were just football toughening me up,” he explains. In 2007, a Achilles injury took him out of the game for good. “I couldn’t walk for a year but the mental pain of not being able to play a game I had loved all my life was worse,” Brandon says, admitting that the moodiness and depression persisted, and he continued to experience physical pain after he stopped playing professionally.
These post-career experiences are not unique. A study published close to a decade ago in the American College of Sports Medicine’s journal identified the fact that almost half of retired football players suffer from chronic pain. More recently, a study presented at the 65th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in 2013 revealed that 40% of former NFL players who experienced concussions were about 40% more likely to suffer from depression than the general public.
The Price of Pain
Over the next few years, Brandon dealt with his distress by self-medicating with alcohol causing his relationship with his family and his marriage to fall apart. His quick temper also got him in trouble with the law. He spent time receiving care in a psychiatric hospital, was diagnosed with suicidal depression, and was sent to anger management classes. By 2012 he had hit rock bottom.
But then came an unlikely ray of hope—a medical cannabis joint.
“A few of my friends who were ex-players urged me to try it because it had helped them,” he says describing his desperation. With that very first joint, Brandon says he felt “normal” again. Like his old self—even keeled, pleasant, and back in control. Smoking the cannabis gave him a sense of hope and revelation. “I don’t smoke to get high,” he admits. “I smoke to become myself again. This was a truly remarkable discovery.”
Brandon was so encouraged by the results, he started researching cannabis and learned it can help heal brain trauma and injuries. He started experimenting with different strains. A strain called Sour Diesel has worked for him but Blue Dream and Super Lemon Haze have also been beneficial. “There are many different strains and varieties of medical cannabis. I’ve found I always react the same way when I use the same strain. But unfortunately there is no system in place to assist people in finding the best strain to meet their needs,” he explains.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Cannabis
Sharmilla Patil, MD, is a pioneer in the field of clinical cannabinoid research and herbal formulation and has helped guide Brandon. “Working with Brandon to develop a supplemental product for his recovery through a healthy delivery system has been a rewarding endeavor,” she says. Dr. Patil is the founder and CEO of GreenTech Laboratories, Inc. (GTL), a California-based company that develops natural, non-toxic, clinically-proven alternative therapies for cancer and other chronic debilitating conditions including CTE and chronic pain. The company has collected data on over 40,000 case studies for various conditions including, but not limited, to CTE. Dr. Patil explains how medical cannabis can provide symptomatic relief.
“Repeated traumatic brain injuries can result in symptoms of CTE including problems with memory and thinking, changes in mood and behavior, and overall malaise. The use of specific ratios of cannabinoids (the molecules in the plant that have medical value), including CBD (the non-psychoactive part of the plant that offers therapeutic benefits that ease pain and relax the central nervous system) and THC (the mood altering component), have positively impacted Brandon’s health,” she explains.
According to Dr. Patil, the drug works by balancing the body’s natural endocannabinoid systemwhich is a complex system of receptors found in the central and peripheral nervous systems, immune system, organs, connective tissue, and glands. “CBD has been proven to have anti-psychotic, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects. In addition, animal models have shown that CBD decreases oxidative stress and exhibits neuro-protective properties. “I have seen significant improvements with pain and inflammation in the clinical setting.”
An Advocate is Born
Inspired by the positive changes associated with his use of medical cannabis, Brandon has become a strong supporter for others seeking relief from suffering. He is involved with several organizations that are working to increase legal access to cannabis and pushing for more research on the benefits for people with a variety of medical diagnoses.
One such group is the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, which brings together former NFL players to raise awareness about the need for the NFL to change existing policies that currently prohibit players from using medical cannabis. The coalition is also committed to spreading the word about the latest research that offers hope that cannabis can prevent or treat traumatic brain injuries so players can live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
Raising Awareness About the Benefits of Cannabis
For now, Brandon relies on cannabis on a daily basis to help him stay on course, although he admits that his revelation may have come a little too late since his pain and mood disorder have already cost him his marriage (which ended in 2010) and his family.
“My wife struggled so much with me that after five years she left over a text message. I've yet to have a face-to-face discussion with her,” he reveals. “But the pain of my divorce reminds me to be a better man and when I remember the joy of love, I’m inspired to help others so that they can possibly have a better chance to achieve it.”
Despite all he’s lost, when Brandon talks about the future, his voice seems filled with enthusiasm for the possibilities that exist—not just for himself but also for those grappling with chronic illnesses that can benefit from the medicinal properties of cannabis.
He plans to continue assisting in advocacy and research efforts so that the next generation of NFL players won’t become a statistic. “My hope is that the research will lead to the development of a line of edibles catered specifically to athletes,” he explains noting that some patients want to avoid the respiratory irritation that comes from smoking.
In the meantime, Dr. Patil is about to begin clinical trials of compounds she has formulated for the management of chronic inflammation and pain. “GTL is developing a new genre of drug for CTE, which will go through the normal FDA pipeline, to help Brandon and his ex-NFL colleagues who are also struggling with post-concussive syndrome and other associated symptoms of TBI.”
As for Brandon he says if he can help just one patient, or one future football player, he’ll be satisfied that something positive has come out of his experiences.