Over the last few years, the battle for legal marijuana has become a central component of our fractured national identity. Weed’s most powerful detractors currently sit in positions of power in the government, and they’re working hard against changing state-level marijuana laws. Scientists are finding a wide range of medicinal benefits in several forms of cannabis, only to face massive legal roadblocks to further research. Finally, those who count on medical cannabis access to do everything from alleviate minor illnesses to keep them alive are in a constant state of uncertainty.
It often takes the involvement of a culturally beloved institution to enact substantial change. That’s why the advent of cannabis in the treatment of NFL football-related concussions may prove key to expanding the possibilities of progressive cannabis legislation. Will those who suffer concussions be the next big group to benefit from medical cannabis? As we experience broader cultural awareness both both concussion-related illnesses and the healing potential of marijuana, all signs point to yes.
Most of us have at least a vague idea of what happens when someone experiences a concussion. All of the most frequent causes—falls, traffic accidents, assault, and sports-related collisions—are fairly universal occurrences, and probably lead most of us to think of them as something a bit more benign than what they actually are.
A concussion is more than a heavy knockout. It’s typically defined as a brain injury that causes a lapse in comprehensive brain function rather than a simple loss of consciousness, which actually doesn’t always occur with a concussion. You may have heard the term “minor concussion” if you, a friend, or family member have had a concussive incident with no serious, long-term effects. Most brain injury professionals agree that there’s no such thing. Every concussion, no matter the severity, should be treated like a serious injury.
Signs and symptoms of concussions vary significantly. Their severity and duration depends on everything from the strength of the trauma to the age and health of an individual patient. Most concussions only result in temporary symptoms that only last weeks, or even days. Individuals who have had more than one concussion may find that successive concussions occur more easily. The most common symptoms of a concussion include:
Both the dangers and prevalence of sports-related concussions will still be surprising to many. Research from the University of Pittsburgh indicates that sports-related concussions occur at a rate of 300,000 annually in the U.S. They also found that athletes risk a 19% chance of suffering a concussion each year. The chance of experiencing multiple concussions within a year increases for college players. No sport is currently more associated with concussions than NFL football. Studies continue to draw a clear connection between professional football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition associated with repeated head trauma that typically results in mood and memory disorders. After coming under fire for several attempts to deny this connection, the NFL is finally acknowledging the risks of CTE associated with their sport.
Concussions are typically diagnosed through several different tests. A neurological concussion test examines hearing, vision, balance and coordination. Cognitive testing may occur to check memory and concentration. Finally, imaging tests may be required to get a clear picture of whether the brain shows concussion symptoms.
A new saliva test has proven effective in identifying concussions in children. Most cases of concussions in adolescents tend to subside after a few days, but about 25% of adolescent concussions have a prolonged effect. The saliva test may be able to read genetic material and predict whether a child’s concussion is serious enough to inflict long lasting symptoms.
Those who suffer concussion symptoms for an extended period of time may be diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS). PCS is most simply defined as an experience of persistent concussion symptoms beyond the normal recovery time. If you have a concussion and you experience headaches, dizziness, nausea, or any other debilitating symptoms for longer than two weeks, you may very well have PCS. Most concussion patients don’t develop PCS (even if they experience more than one concussion) but that doesn’t mean the number of people who do (anywhere from 50% to 30%, depending on the age group) isn’t significant.
Whether they experience full PCS, or simply become more prone to concussions after one or two mild brain injuries, people with recurrent concussion symptoms find their condition severely disruptive. It can inhibit their ability to work, perform daily tasks, and even get along well with others. Recovery isn’t always difficult, but it typically involves proactive self care from the patient. A strict regimen of solid sleep at night, rest during the day, abstinence from physical activities, and a slow, systematic return to full activity remains the standard post-concussion treatment method. PCS patients usually require a more thorough treatment plan that identifies the most severe individual symptoms in order to prescribe therapies.
Concussion treatment research has grown substantially since the NFL brain injury controversies have raised public awareness. In Florida, several hospitals are bringing in new technology and techniques to identify and treat concussions. Miami concussion clinics with high-tech detection tools seem to be re-inventing the wheel. Bari Gold, a Florida resident and high school athlete, benefited from concussion treatment at the University of Miami Mental Health System (UHealth). After a series of sports-related concussions, Bari experienced symptoms that kept her from fully functioning as a student. UHealth’s diagnosis and treatment system (which includes state-of-the-art concussion detection goggles) helped Bari get well enough to return to sports for her senior year. Her story is indicative of several Florida athletes who have sought concussion treatment at UHealth.
For many leading concussion treatment programs like UHealth, cannabis is an essential part of the equation. A group of UHealth doctors are currently testing cannabinoid compounds to treat concussion-related headaches. In other parts of the country, some doctors claim that cannabis is an ideal treatment substance for Post-Concussion Syndrome.
From a variety of sports, athletes have also spoken out in favor of cannabis treatment for concussions. Last summer, boxer David Schacter wrote an editorial about how marijuana is helpful in treating his concussions. According to Schacter, boxers have very few options for quickly treating concussion symptoms, and cannabis is very effective in “clearing the cobwebs” of the battered mind.
Whether for a boxer’s “punch drunk” symptoms or CTE in NFL players, it’s clear that cannabis has great potential to treat brain injuries. For non-athletes who suffer from concussions, the cannabis effect may be equally beneficial.
The gap between federal marijuana laws and public perception continues to widen. As the stories of medical cannabis users come out of states where the plant is legal, marijuana’s enormous healing potential becomes clearer. In other countries like the UK, CBD oil—a popular, non-psychotropic cannabis derivative—has been reclassified as a medicine to accommodate the growing population of medical users, while the U.S. has doubled down on its strict Schedule 1 classification of all cannabis products. Meanwhile, America’s medical marijuana narrative is colliding with the ongoing story of the NFL’s reckoning.
Since coming under fire for putting players at extreme risk for brain injuries and CTE, the NFL has launched a Play Smart, Play Safe initiative, which included a two-season concussion study intended to produce effective protection methods. Despite the exhaustive study, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman thinks the initiative is an “absolute joke,” only designed to temper public opinion. Sherman is certainly not the only player (or fan, for that matter) to feel this way, but only time will tell how effective the NFL’s efforts are in reducing concussions in their players.
NFL players are actively seeking out preventative measures to solve the concussion problem. A company in Seattle has worked with players to develop a football helmet that better protects the brain from concussion-related impact. Other players argue for using cannabis to treat this pressing condition. These players are intrigued by marijuana’s potential to both prevent and treat severe concussion symptoms.
So what exactly does research say about the role of cannabis in concussion treatment? First and foremost, cannabis has enormous potential as an anti-inflammatory, which is why it’s currently being used to treat several arthritic conditions. After 25 years of brain inflammation study, neuroscientist Gary Wenk, PhD, concludes that careful, sustained marijuana use can protect the brain from inflammation over time. This prolonged anti-inflammatory effect may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s as well as concussions.
Though still in the earliest stages, research also indicates that the terpenes found in marijuana may have medical benefits. Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the most prominent and well-known compounds in marijuana, so discussions of medical cannabis usually revolve around their benefits. Terpenes are the fragrant oils found in marijuana, largely responsible for the odor of various strains. Though far less prominent than CBD or THC, they may also be an important part of the medicinal equation. Terpenes may also have anti-inflammatory properties, making them a valuable component of weed strains recommended for concussion treatment.
CBD is still arguably the most important component of medical cannabis. Most research points toward CBD as an effective neuroprotectant. This is great news for concussion patients, as CBD’s neuroprotective properties may help the brain heal more easily. Marijuana strains with high CBD and low THC content may also be effective in concussion treatment, as the limited THC can provide pain relief while the CBD works its neuroprotective magic.
When using cannabis for medicinal purposes, it’s often recommended to take it in forms that include both CBD and THC. That being said, there’s still an enormous population for which that’s either financially or legally impossible. Since CBD is generally the most important medicinal cannabis compound, CBD hemp oil can be a great substitute.
As the alternative medicine industry grows in popularity, so do CBD products. It’s getting to the point where CBD hemp oil and other CBD products are legal in more places and more readily available in forms other than cannabis. CBD oil is typically extracted from high-CBD hemp, and is therefore non-psychoactive. CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system, regulating cannabinoid receptors to bring the body back to a balanced state. Current research indicates that CBD has virtually no adverse side effects, making it an enticing potential treatment method for concussion patients who aren’t well enough to endure THC side effects.
For Post-Concussion Syndrome, cannabis oil may be able to at least reduce psychological effects. Research has shown CBD to effectively relieve pain and improve sleep patterns. For PCS patients who suffer from chronic headaches and lack of sleep, CBD cannabis oil may be a godsend.
If you have suffered a concussion, have PCS, or experience some sort of brain injury in the future, there’s never been a better time to explore cannabis-related treatment options. Consulting a licensed physician and following local cannabis laws should always be top priority, but entertaining the possibility of cannabis treatment—whether through a concussion-friendly cannabis strain or mild cannabis oil—is safer than ever. Ex-NFL players like Jake Plummer and Eugene Monroe continue to support medical marijuana research because they see its potential to wipe out the league’s concussion epidemic. Their support applies to concussion treatment at large as research continues to back up their claims.