Dr. Harvey Finkelstein Talks Pain Management and Prescription Drug Dependency in the NFL

| by Max Wohlmuth

The National Football League (NFL) has without question become a model for successful sports associations around the world. From its revenue sharing strategies to its television deals to the way it turned gambling and fantasy football into business development assets, there are very few chinks in pro football’s armor.

There's one very notable exception, however: injuries.

Over the past few years, the NFL has found itself fending off one legal battle after another over the damage sustained by former players. And while this is an important issue worthy of the attention that it has gotten, it has led to an equally significant problem flying under the radar: pain management prescription drug dependency among current players.

Every year, NFL players look forward to a season of constant abuse. Blocking, tackling and hitting all obviously cause pain and injury. Sometimes injuries are season ending, forcing players to watch from the sideline. Other times, the pain is intense, but manageable with the proper chemical assistance.

Before and after every game, team doctors are doing everything they can to help players get back onto the field. Losing players to injuries is extremely expensive for teams because they have to continue paying for said guys as though they are active, all the while also funding their recovery. Thus, keeping the worn down players in the lineup is now a regular part of the game, and pain medication has become the main avenue in doing so.

Players receive various medications to soothe their aching bodies. Everyone knows and accepts this fact. However, the scary truth is that sometimes players are not told the consequences of what they are taking. This is a problem due to the fact that players don’t feel the need to ask questions about the medication because they fully trust the team doctors. They believe the doctors know what is best for getting everyone on and off the field. And even when they are not fully confident in the doctors’ intentions, players feel as though they have little choice in the matter anyway.

A survey taken by the Washington Post of 500 former players found that one in four players felt they were pushed by the team doctors to take the medications in order to continue playing through the season.

However, it is worth noting that not every player (active or retired) feels pressured to take unknown medication to feel better. Matt Bowen, a retired NFL safety, claims that team doctors explained the risks of using the pain medication Toradol before he was given the drug. Toradol is a popular nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory used by players and team doctors all over the league.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as Bowen. Recently, a dozen players filed a lawsuit against the NFL on the belief that the league and their team doctors did not take the necessary steps in warning players of the side effects of the drug Toradol and frequent use.

Dr. Harvey Finkelstein, a doctor specializing in pain management, believes that it is not necessarily the doctors who are willingly withholding information from the players.

“The team often controls what the doctor is able to say to keep the prestige of being a team doctor,” Dr. Finkelstein said.

Team doctors face another difficulty, as well. They claim identifying the players who actually need pain medication is a challenge. So, some players are able to get the drug without a serious injury.

As players continue to use Toradol to soothe the pain after each game, many do not realize addiction is a possible outcome.

Does this mean the NFL should tighten their restrictions on the distribution of pain medications like Toradol by using enforcing stricter policies? Although stricter policies may be a solution, Dr. Harvey Finkelstein believes that player history is more imperative.

“If the athlete or his family has had an addiction issue, then pain medication must be given carefully,” he said. “With a strong addiction history, it may be safer to avoid opioid pain medication and treat with physical therapy or injections.”

Further, the problem doesn’t necessarily solely lie with the team doctors. Washington University in St. Louis recently ran a survey in which they found that 63 percent of the surveyed players said pain medications were given to them by someone other than the team doctor.

In creating a plan of action for the prevention of pain medication abuse around the league, the NFL cannot simply focus on the team doctors. And various teams around the league appear be adjusting to that.

Across the NFL, teams have begun using companies to deliver the prescription medication to team facilities. These companies are approved by the DEA and keep up-to-date logs on all their transactions. As Dr. Harvey Finkelstein contends, this is a considerable step in the right direction.

The long-term effects of these pain medications are definitely alarming, but the fact that players and fans are becoming more educated about the matter is a positive sign. Public attention is a magic elixir that seems to solve a lot of problems that otherwise would have remained unsolved, and the bright light being shined on the NFL’s pain management process will only make it cleaner and more effective for all involved.