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Retired NFL players carry considerable damage into life after football

Over the last few years, the NFL’s injury focus was to address the alleged mismanagement and under-diagnosis of concussions.
Credit: Adobe Stock

NEW ORLEANS — With the NFL back at full strength post-Covid-19 pandemic’s major restrictions, the players and their respective fans are experiencing a rebirth, so to speak, of excitement, team pride, and euphoria, from a year of world-wide trauma that spared no single population on the planet.

With any traumatic, contact sport, like the NFL, casualties are an expected part of the game—much like what the military, albeit heroic, projects for potential wars and conflicts.

Over the last few years, the NFL’s injury focus was to address the alleged mismanagement and under-diagnosis of concussions—which the NFL eventually settled a class-action lawsuit by former players.

While concussion diagnosis and management are critical to a player’s long-term health and career extension, it’s dwarfed by the level of musculoskeletal injuries experienced and endured by both current and retired NFL players.

Having previously analyzed the weekly, mandated NFL team injury reports (Wednesday & Thursday) for the Washington Post’s fantasy website, I can attest to the fact that NFL is a train wreck on every play—with the associated damage that can be potentially career-limiting or, in a worst case, career ending—forcing a retired player to live his post-NFL life with pain and discomfort - expanding with age.

According to “Musculoskeletal Injury History Is Associated with Lower Physical and Mental Health in a Historic Cohort of Former National Football League players”, which appeared in the June 2021 issue of the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation, “as a collision sport, American football has a high risk of serious physical injury. Data from the National Football League (NFL) indicate that up to 68% of NFL players may be injured in a season.”

The study authors, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Duke Cancer Institute, Durham, NC, and Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, estimated that most NFL players have experienced three or more injuries during their career. Such injuries, comment the university researchers, “can be associated with long-term outcomes alongside loss of playing time, such as psychological stress, chronic pain and long-term pain and disability, and an increased prevalence of arthritis and osteoarthritis.”

To address the gap in information from retired NFL players on their self-reported health status, the authors chose to use the recognized Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL)—a multidimensional concept that includes aspects of physical, psychological, and social functioning, and how these can be affected by experiences, expectations, and individual beliefs. “Specifically, gaining insight to how a previous musculoskeletal injury can affect self-reported HRQOL of former NFL players.”

The researchers employed a cross-sectional study, using a group (3647) of former professional football players, who had played at least one NFL season between the years 1940 to 2001, and completed the Retired NFL Players General Health Survey (GHS). Those players that didn’t respond were followed-up by mail, e-mail, and/or telephone follow-up during the subsequent year—with 2537 former players responding.

From a career injury perspective, respondents were asked to provide how many  serious musculoskeletal injuries (bone, ligament, muscle), which they sustained, while playing professional football – with serious injury being defined as “involving any of the following: a fracture, torn ligament, or ruptured muscle; required surgery; and/or caused you to miss at least 2 games or 2 weeks of practice.”

In addition to the GHS, the Short Form 36 Measurement Model for Functional Assessment of Health and Well-Being included the Physical Health Composite Score (PCS)—measuring physical functioning, role physical, bodily pain, and general health—and the Mental Health Composite Score (MCS)—measuring vitality, social functioning, role emotional, and mental health.

Demographic information, such as age, race/ethnicity, body mass index, exercise, tobacco use, alcohol consumption over the last year, and medication for physical and mental complaints, was assessed via the GHS.

The University researchers determined that “among this historical cohort of former NFL players, over 90% reported sustaining at least one musculoskeletal injury during their professional careers. Respondents self-reported that many of these injuries required surgery, resulted in their professional playing careers prematurely ending, and still affected them.”

“The additional findings highlight the large percentages of NFL players reporting surgery (60.7%), a premature end to their professional football career (40.3%), and still being affected by injury (74.8%), further augment the concern about the effects from musculoskeletal injuries on overall functioning across the lifespan,” commented the investigators.”

That led to the following comment: “Despite these limitations, this study highlights the need for more research on a wide range of care for both former and current NFL players.”

Next time you see a traumatic NFL hit, exhale because the damage is just getting started. For more information and to read the study, go to maxwellnutrition.com.

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