Bears Middle Linebacker Brian Urlacher’s Painkiller Use Depicts Bigger Problem in Sports

Early Tuesday morning as I perused the numerous work emails needing my attention, my department head came into the office and asked if I had heard about Brian Urlacher’s recent comments; that it was all over the radio.

Being a suburbanite of Chicago, one very interested in happenings in the sports world (at youth through elite levels), and one who has a vested interest in those happenings based on my forthcoming book Becoming a True Champion, needless to say, my department head certainly sparked my interest.

I said “no, not yet” in answer to his question if I had heard anything. He promptly continued, stating that Urlacher had admitted using the pain killer Toradol to keep him on the field playing.

Not one to jump immediately to conclusions, I Googled all I could find on what was said, what the drug does for players, and what consequences surround its use.

It certainly did not take me long to find that players use Toradol to decrease inflammation (thus reducing pain), that Urlacher had been using it since his third season in the NFL, that its use might be fairly common among many NFL players around the league (being administered by the medical/training staff as they see fit), and that it is at the center of a lawsuit against the league by former NFL players who believe its use had increased their risk of concussions and the consequences from those concussions.

Its effectiveness at allowing players to stay competitive through pain that might normally sideline them seems to be well accepted. “Former NFL center Jeremy Newberry” supports this likelihood as he was quoted saying it “’makes you feel like Superman for three hours,’” in Dan Pompei’s recent article on Urlacher in the Chicago Tribune.

Problem is, Newberry is now suffering from one of the possible, major side effects of Toradol use, kidney failure. That, along with gastrointestinal bleeding, appears to be high on the list of negative consequences in the overuse of this pain-killing drug.

Now, before I continue, I want to state how much respect I have for top level athletes. It is extremely difficult to compete at the highest levels on a regular basis, not just anyone can do that.

And I am well aware of the amount and type of work high level athletes must put in to become the “best” at what they do. The type of discipline, commitment, and perseverance it takes to stare down adversity and put forth the kind of effort one must to even come close to their athletic potential.

However, even with all that said, and as much admiration as I have for an athlete like Brian Urlacher and the career he has had, I am having a heck of a time wrapping my brain around the idea (as inferred in the Tribune piece, Bears' Urlacher admits he uses painkiller Toradol) that he would simply throw caution to the wind to stay “’on the football field.’” In the long term, it holds no logic.

Look, again I get it, I understand the whole concept of wanting to be the best, of being there for your teammates, of simply wanting to continue to compete and stay in the competitive arena. But not at the cost of your long-term health; not for that kind of risk.

And these NFL players, they’re not just using this pain killer once or twice, at least if the reports I have read are accurate. Many are using it like one might take an aspirin for a headache. Oh, got a headache, take a pill. Oh, got to play a game, take an injection.

Wow, talk about a loss of perspective. If this whole scenario with the use of Toradol doesn’t demonstrate the essence behind that statement, I don’t know what would.

And yes, I am well aware of that study done way back when where they asked a group of athletes if they could take a pill that would allow them to win a gold medal or be some type of famous champion but they would die five years later (or something to that effect), that many, maybe most, would take that pill.

Seriously, that boggles my mind.

Hey, I remember athletes, teammates of mine, taking cortisone injections in order to keep training and/or competing (and I am talking top level, elite, national caliber athletes here). I don’t know if the consequences are anywhere near as severe as Toradol; however, there were risks. From my understanding, you can only have a certain number of cortisone injections before it starts to weaken tendons and cause degeneration of cartilage.

Not sure I could have done that, most especially on a regular basis. I certainly would not have done it for my "job," not for a sport I love to play, not even if it meant winning a national championship. To me, it just wouldn't be worth crossing that line.

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  • I like your overview & article, but I'm not sure I agree with your last paragraph. I played volleyball competitively in college and post-college, and have had my share of surgeries and ailments along the way, including a fused spine, a couple knee surgeries & now am living with a torn rotator cuff b/c I am tired of getting things 'fixed'. I purposely saved all my painkillers post-op so that I could either play in all-day tournaments or get through the day after a tournament when the major pains set in. The problem is, that as a conditioned young athlete (these pros are still 'young' in the true sense of the word), you do not have the mindset to make a decision here & now that is going to affect your post-play life. You are trained from the age of 6-8 years old that you play no matter what, and you do your best. As you get older and these means become available to you, you think 'well, my best is upheld with some assistance, because XYZ really hurts.' I took a ton of NSAIDs throughout & post-college, and I now pay for it in terms of my digestive tract not functioning at 100% like it used to. If I had to go back and change my decisions though - would I? I'm a former All-American and have an NCAA championship ring...and the competitive nature in me says that I wouldn't have changed a thing; even with the ailments that I experience now. You're right - it holds no logic whatsoever...and the fact that I have to walk sideways down stairs because the cartilage in my knees is diminished now makes no sense either. I just don't think, though, that high performing athletes have the capability, support or willingness to make life-alltering decisions in the 'here & now' that can affect them so greatly down the road as they age. I think there is room in the education of collegiate level athletes for this - as evidenced by so many athletes who suffer during their latter years of life. I'll be done with this ramble - again, loved the article & I can't even imagine football injuries against what I experience now! Ouch!

  • Great comment quinnvbk,

    If I might have a chance to clarify. It is the consistent taking of a drug like Toradol, or any drug with serious long term side effects, in order to play that I take issue with, and that I would not have subjected myself too.

    I, like you, was a competitive college athlete at the elite/national level, with the same accolades that you mention, and I did have a line I had drawn for myself with regard to any "drug" to keep me competing.

    I took a different perspective than most with regard to my training and conditionining which I believe kept me much healthier than my competitive counterparts, along with allowing for higher levels of performance. I had none of the shoulder issues that athletes who competed with and against me had, and some at much younger ages. Any shoulder problems I have now were from normal wear and tear and aging.

    And, yes, I agree that many young athletes don't have the mindset that gives them a broader perspective as to the consequences their choices can bring to them much later. However, it is important to educate them regarding those risks and consequences, something your comment does a great job of doing.

    And this statement you made is perfect, "You are trained from the age of 6-8 years old that you play no matter what, and you do your best." That is so true, and that has to change. It is a winning at all cost attitude that brings with it many of the issues I write about here. You see, it is not just athletes who have lost perspective.

    To me, there is a better way, always was. Its all in the perspective one takes.

    Thanks so much for your response and stay tuned for further articles along the sports and youth sports lines. It is all about making a difference.

    Best,

    Kirk
    Becoming a True Champion
    BATC

  • It's a deeply personal decision on what is most important to you. We are all going to die. Many people do not want 85 years of mediocrity if they can have 50 years and be at the top or be something meaningful to them for at least part of that time.

  • In reply to DaveHD:

    Dave,

    Thanks for chiming in. Yes, it is a deeply personal decision, however, you don't have to take high risk medications on a regular basis to compete and accomplish meaningful things.

    You can be at the top using some level of discretion regarding the use of pain killers. Most are safe when administered by a physician and taken according to the prescription. That is as long as the athlete is not taking other drugs or substances that have a multiplying or antagonistic effect.

    In addition, if one must consistently take medications (over long periods of time) to even play, there body is telling them something. There is a message there. And I am not sure those who do this really consider the risks or consequences of their decisions. They are living in the moment only, something common to how teens think - they don't think long-term. Just my thoughts.

  • I really don't get it. There are ads on TV now with senior professional golfers saying that without a particular NSAID they would not be able to play golf. These are not narcotics and not addictive.Any drug taken in excess is harmful. Tylenol has a more dangerous profile for damage to the body if taken in excess than Toradol. If your shoulder hurts, everyone takes advil or Nuprin (both NSAIDS like Toradol) for relief. Just follow the directions and use common sense. If someone wants to take too much of a noncontroled substance it is their decision and they must face the consequences and risks. Why don't we control their weight so in 10 years they won't need a knee replacement?

  • In reply to hbmj:

    I don't feel that weight is even a small reason why player's knee gives out. I think it's decades of use at a competitive level and masking agents such as toradol and other pain killers that do not heal but only mask the pain the players go through, exacerbating the injury and eventually debilitation of the knees. Maybe weight is an issue with the linemen, but athletes in the type of shape that running backs and linemen must maintain, I strongly believe that weight is the furthest reason for the issue.

    There's been quite a few players that have come out and admitted that they masked their pain with medication that ended up having irreversable damage to existing injuries and even further caused addiction issues.

  • In reply to hbmj:

    So true hbmj. Drugs, in general, are neither bad nor good in and of themselves, they are such based on how and why they are used.

    My articles intention was not to say, “never take pain killers.” This is not a one way or the other issue with no middle ground. It is the consistent misuse of the drug, any drug really, that is at issue. I think, based on the information I have read, that some NFL players are using them like candy and taking them before every game to play, not Urlacher necessarily but others. At least that is how the media is portraying their use. Sensationalism, maybe, but I tend to think that they actually might be used as they are being portrayed. If so, that is indicative of a loss of perspective.

  • In reply to hbmj:

    Just an FYI, and please feel free to research this further. From, what looks like a reputable site, (eMedExpert, http://www.emedexpert.com/compare/nsaids.shtml) comes the statement below regarding Toradol.

    "The major NSAIDs of potency comparable to opioids are diclofenac and ketorolac. Moderate postoperative pain, for example, may be managed using these agents. Ketorolac (Torodol) [Toradol] is a very potent NSAID and is used for moderately severe pain that usually requires narcotics. The overall analgesic effect of 30 mg of ketorolac is equivalent to that of 6 to 12 mg of morphine. Efficacy has been demonstrated for postsurgical pain including oral, orthopedic, gynecologic, and abdominal procedures. Efficacy for acute musculoskeletal pain has also been shown. Its antipyretic activity is significant. Anti-inflammatory activity is achieved only at doses higher than those needed for analgesia. Ketorolac causes ulcers more frequently than any other NSAID and is, therefore, not used for more than five days."
    However, they did have trouble spelling "Toradol" :-)!!!

  • I was on a regular regiment of pain killers in high school. Only 9 games in a season, you would do anything possible to play. It ranged from Tylenol 3's to 500mg vicodin, you could go to the Family Med Check and get them as advised by the team trainer. This is high school, were the pressure may be at it's lowest. But that is where it starts and only gets worse as the pressure to win increases.

    What is more alarming Kirk is steroid use at the high school lever NOW, before it was more of a big high school issue. I went to a 2A High School and when I last visited I knew of about 6 players doping. That is alarming at a school with an enrollment of 300 total students. There are alot of issues in sports under the guise of "winning", however until that pressure is addressed with common sense and compassion for the human beings that succumb, this will continue to be a problem that only gets acknowledged for it's respective 15 minutes.

  • Curtis,

    Great comment and points. I spend a good deal of time writing on the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs and, like you, attribute it to the winning at all costs attitudes that are so prevalent today.

    As an athlete, I wanted to win more as much as anyone, but, not at the risk to my long term health. There has to be a better balance here.

    And 15 minutes of fame is fine, as long as it is gained through honest, ethical efforts that come from solid foundations in character and integrity. Too much of that is missing these days.

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