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Hockey Research program eyes cannabinoids to treat former NHL players’ pain

The NHL Alumni Association is offering “hope and help” to its ailing members through a clinical-research initiative that involves the use of cannabinoids (CBD) for pain management and the treatment of post-concussion neurological disorders.

NHLAA executive director Glenn Healy unveiled the program Saturday in Toronto calling it “the most ambitious project the Alumni Association has ever done.” The multimillion-dollar endeavour is a partnership among the Association and its 3,800 members, NEEKA Healthcare Canada and Canopy Growth, a Smith Falls, Ont., company that produces cannabis-based products.

Canopy Growth will finance at least one study of 100 former players from Southern Ontario who are dealing with physical pain and post-concussion symptoms such as anxiety, depression and progressive dementia. Some players will need assistance weaning themselves off addictive opioids said to be a burgeoning problem shared by retired and current athletes, particularly those still dealing with the pain from contact sports.

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“We’re trying to get players back functionally integrated into their world,” said Healy, a retired NHL goaltender who has spoken with dozens of former players whose wives who have sought help for their husbands’ worsening condition. “They’re wounded in some way and they don’t know where to turn. When you finish playing, the [NHL] Players’ Association doesn’t represent you any more so then what? Where do you go for help? Now you have a place to go.”

Doctors Mark Ware and Amin Kassam are involved in the Alumni project. Ware is Canopy Growth’s chief medical officer. Kassam is a renowned neurosurgeon associated with NEEKA Healthcare Canada. He is based at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee.

Ware spoke at Saturday’s news conference and highlighted the purpose of the NHLAA partnership as a search for “alternative medical treatments to treat the long-term and often devastating effects of concussion.” He later told reporters there are former players who are self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs and that’s troublesome since “it’s unclear which have the most effects and which have the most side effects … we need options."

NEEKA Healthcare and Canopy Growth will collect then study the data pooled from the players in a variety of ways. Blood tests will be conducted and players will be put through speech and memory tests. They will also receive a variety of brain scans. This will happen over a 10-week period beginning this summer with 80 per cent of the players taking CBD pills. (CBD comes from the cannabis plant and produces more of a mellow feeling than a high. It has been predicted the CBD market in the United States will hit the US$16-billion mark by 2025.)

As for the remaining 20 per cent of tested players, they will receive a placebo. Analysis will be done without knowing in advance which players took CBD and which one didn’t.

Healy said the benefits of a program that offers safer ways to treat pain and post-concussion ailments will prove to be “a legacy project. We’re going to take highly afflicted athletes and we’re going to have scientific data that says this is what you do. Here’s an app you use. You’re self-medicating with a masking agent? Well, it’s no longer Vicodin or OxyContin.”

Paul Echlin, a doctor with Primary Care Sports Medicine in Burlington, Ont., offered a note of caution.

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“Promoting ex-players to be involved in medical cannabinoid trials is not a solution, and may or may not treat only the effects of their multiple known brain injuries,” Echlin said. “Public participation in medical trials does not address the root cause, which is primarily the repetitive, cumulative and preventable head traumas, which continue to occur among our young athletes in all sports.” He added “public curriculum-based education about this public health epidemic is required.”

The Centers for Disease Control in the United States has estimated that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions happen in sports and recreational activities every year.

The NHL Alumni Association’s work with CBD has been mentioned as a possible treatment option for the NHL and its Players’ Association. The NHL is no doubt aware it might some day face the kind of legal action occurring in football. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that more than 1,800 former NFL players had filed a lawsuit against the league claiming NFL teams broke federal laws governing the storing, tracking and distribution of prescription painkillers. The matter is ongoing.

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