Ex-Pro Football Players Struggle With Health Problems

ByABC News

Mar. 23 -- FRIDAY, April 27 (HealthDay News) -- The glamour of playing professional football can fade fast and hard once an athlete's career is over, a new study suggests.

Chronic pain from injuries sustained during a career, plus levels of depression comparable to the general population that can be aggravated by that injury-related pain, can make the transition to retirement difficult for many players, University of Michigan researchers report.

Many retired players "have a rate of moderate to severe depressive symptoms similar to the general population," said lead researcher Dr. Thomas L. Schwenk. "But they also have a huge burden of chronic pain, from injuries and the stress of a professional sports career. The two interact to cause significant sleep disturbance and other miseries."

Besides depression and chronic pain, those miseries can range from loss of fitness and lack of exercise, financial difficulties, a lack of social support or friendships, and abuse of prescribed medication, alcohol or other drugs, the study found.

The findings are published in the April issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. They are also timely because the National Football League is holding its annual draft of college players this weekend.

The study also come on the heels of tragic headlines involving former NFL players, including Andre Waters, a star safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals, who committed suicide in November at the age of 44. He was suffering from brain damage caused by multiple concussions during his 12-year career, according to pathology reports.

For the new study, Schwenk's group surveyed 3,377 retired members of the NFL Players Association. Of the 1,594 who responded, almost 15 percent reported moderate to severe depression, a figure comparable to the general public, Schwenk said.

But, half of those respondents also said they suffered from chronic pain, Schwenk said, and "this puts them at significant additional risk for depression."

Moreover, more than 50 percent of the ex-players had high scores for pain, depression or both.

The consequences of depression were seen in sleep problems, difficulty in getting help for depression and feeling isolated. Ex-players who reported moderate to severe depression were 11 times more likely to have trouble sleeping than those who weren't depressed or only mildly depressed.

In addition, ex-players with moderate-to-severe depression were almost eight times more likely to report a loss of fitness and lack of exercise, and seven times more likely to report financial difficulties.

Those who were moderately to severely depressed were more likely to have problems getting social support or maintaining friendships. And, they had problems with the use of medication, alcohol or other drugs, and trouble with the transition to life after football, the study found.

Ex-players also reported barriers to getting help for depression, including a preference to rely on religion or family and friends, lack of insurance coverage, and feelings that these problems weren't important.

"There is also a stigma in seeking help for depression. Many ex-players said they would feel weak or embarrassed if they sought help," said Schwenk, the George A. Dean, M.D. chair and professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Health System and associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center.

Schwenk thinks that NFL players need to start planning for these potential problems before they retire. "Most players don't have a plan of how to cope with life after football and how to seek help for their depression and chronic pain," he said.

On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league's medical committee has been working on a way to start mandatory tests for concussions, perhaps as early as this summer when training camps open. That comes after March's league meetings when league officials and coaches agreed that head injuries need close monitoring, the Associated Press reported.

"At no time should competitive issues override medical issues," Goodell said. "Safety comes first."

More information

For more information on depression, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., George A. Dean, M.D. chair and professor of family medicine, University of Michigan Health System, and associate director, University of Michigan Depression Center, Ann Arbor; April 2007, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise; Associated Press

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