FRIDAY, Jan. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Retired professional football players use opioid painkiller drugs four times more than people in the general U.S. population, a new study shows.
Researchers asked 644 former NFL players who retired between 1979 and 2006 about their overall health, level of pain, history of injuries and concussions, and use of prescription pain drugs.
Seven percent of the retired players said they were currently taking opioid painkillers, which include morphine, Vicodin, codeine and oxycodone, said the researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"We asked about medications they used during their playing careers and whether they used the drugs as prescribed or whether they had ever taken them in a different way or for different reasons," principal investigator Linda B. Cottler, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry, said in a university news release. "More than half used opioids during their NFL careers, and 71 percent had misused the drugs. That is, they had used the medication for a different reason or in a different way than it was prescribed, or taken painkillers that were prescribed for someone else."
She and her colleagues found that players who misused the drugs during their careers were more likely to misuse them after they retired. Misuse was reported by 15 percent of retired players who misused the drugs while playing, compared with about 5 percent of retired players who only took the drugs as prescribed during their playing days.
Pain and undiagnosed concussions were major predictors of current opioid painkiller misuse among retired NFL players.
"The rate of current, severe pain is staggering," Cottler said. "Among the men who currently used prescription opioids -- whether misused or not -- 75 percent said they had severe pain, and about 70 percent reported moderate-to-severe physical impairment."
About 49 percent of the players in the study were diagnosed with a concussion at some point in their playing careers, and 81 percent said they believe they suffered undiagnosed concussions. Those with suspected-but-undiagnosed concussions borrowed painkiller pills from teammates, friends or relatives to keep playing, according to the study.
The researchers also found that retired players who misuse opioid drugs are more likely to be heavy drinkers.
"So these men are at elevated risk for potential overdose," Cottler said. "They reported more than 14 drinks a week, and many were consuming at least 20 drinks per week, or the equivalent of about a fifth of liquor."
The study appears online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a guide to safe use of pain medicines.