MMA and Weed: A Look into Cannabis for Sports Injuries

Written by Pierce Baker May 16, 2022
The HistoryThe PeopleThe Plant

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is a brutal sport and fighters suffering head injuries is an unfortunate reality. Many athletes in MMA turn to cannabis products either for recovery or recreational purposes. In fact a recent study from the Athletic, found that nearly half of the 170 professional MMA fighters reported they currently use cannabis. Perhaps even more significant; over 75% reported cannabis is prominent within their recovery regimen plans. 

One of the most common head injuries associated with MMA is a concussion. The Mayo clinic defines a concussion as the brain shaking and moving within its skull. Around 40-80 percent of people who experience concussions develop post-concussion syndrome, when concussion symptoms last beyond the expected recovery period after the initial injury. While fighters recover, many find relief using cannabis. Some medicinal properties within cannabis may alleviate side-effects associated with post-concussion syndrome. While some pharmaceutical medications can make headaches worse, cannabis activates inhibitory pain pathways and even reduces neural inflammation. While many athletes have shared anecdotes of the healing properties of cannabis, particularly its analgesic (pain relieving) properties, the plant simply requires more clinical trials to patients, especially as it relates to concussions and head injuries..

One unnamed UFC fighter told the Athletic, “I vape (cannabis). It’s legal in our state. Even if it wasn’t, I’d use [cannabis] over pain pills anyway. No question.” 

If an overwhelming amount of fighters see cannabis as integral to their physical health, how do UFC league administrators view the substance? The UFC adheres to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances which bans cannabis while in-competition. The competition period begins on weigh-ins the day before a fight and ends when a fighter leaves the cage on fight night. If a competitor tests positive for THC in urine samples for concentrations higher than 150 ng/mL during this period, potential fines and suspensions may await them. 

MMA is Not the Only One

For decades, federally approved medical cannabis research has only been allowed at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). The purpose behind the research was to show why cannabis should be categorized as a Schedule I substances. Schedule I drugs include ones with little medical use as well as high potential for abuse, include dangerous and lethal. This includes drugs like heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy). While cannabis is a Schedule I drug, evidence suggests it can even be useful in treating opiate addictions.

League administrators and state regulators must follow the rules set in place surrounding cannabis. Are the benefits for competitors worth possible suspension? UFC Vice President Jeff Novitzsky recognizes the advantages of using cannabis and is afraid of what substances fighters might use instead to cope. “This anti-doping was supposed to be put in place for the protection and health and safety of the athletes,” he said. “It’s actually, if you look at it, pushing athletes to more dangerous, more addictive drugs.” Novitzky believes rules discouraging the use of cannabis within MMA should be uniformly changed to protect fighters. Until fines and suspensions are discontinued, fighters must navigate the barriers to use cannabis carefully. But THC can remain in the body for over a week, making recovery routines difficult. And the psychological toll surrounding fighting against the most skilled martial artists in the world undoubtedly causes high anxiety levels.

“There’s no sport on the planet, in my experience and opinion, that produces anxiety like MMA and the UFC,” Novitzsky exclaims.

The Current Cost of Using Cannabis

Apart from the mental battle, professional athletes face the possibility of devastating injuries constantly. In the NFL, repeated head trauma can cause a neurodegenerative disease called  CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). In 2017, a research paper published in a medical journal stated that CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) was present within 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains donated to research. Unfortunately, individuals exposed to CTE can experience symptoms like severe depression, anxiety, memory loss and more. Seeking a solution, a commission formed between the NFL (National Football League) and the league’s players union announced it would award up to $1 million in grants for researchers to discover the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis. 

Despite risking their image to the public, NFL players are speaking out in favor of cannabis’ benefits to sports. Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame kicker Nick Lowery believes CBD products can help protect the brain. “We have a chance to turn these CBD products to treat CTE, which killed my teammate, legend Mike Webster, and which killed my Pro Bowl teammate and great friend, one of the great characters and sources of positive energy, Junior Seau, in the league,” said Lowery. The Kansas City Chiefs superstar serves on the board for Kannalife Sciences, a bio-pharmaceutical company dedicated to using cannabis to treat patients. “There’s no risk. It’s not about the high. It’s about protecting the brain and the best game in America.”

Fortunately for MMA fighters, the Nevada Athletic Commission lifted its longtime ban on using cannabis out of competition. Fighters still face fines and suspensions for testing positive during competition periods but can utilize cannabis for recovery regimens. The fight continues but it’s a start. 

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