Football and painkillers

There is a great article in today’s Times where Gregor Robertson describes an alarming practice where up to half of the professional footballers are habitually using anti-inflammatory drugs. In my experience in playing football all my life and also as a physiotherapist with different teams for many years now, this is not isolated to professional athletes.

Despite the level, as this article states ‘the primary pressure to play comes from players themselves’ and I certainly was one of these players just last season and it didn’t end well! I had joined my local club again and was starting and playing quite well and grabbing a few goals. We were on a run to get promoted to the Premier Division where we had to win every game and were six out of six with two games left. We had a good squad with lads itching to come on so if something happened (missed game, injury, suspension, poor performance, etc) you would be then trying to get back in, which if you play is harder than staying in!

I don’t even remember getting a knock and walked off the pitch as normal. This in itself is an indicator of the power of adrenaline and how vital it is in seeing if a person is truly ready to return to sport – you can mimic sport and think you’re ready to return but actually playing is that next step and adrenaline can mask the ‘readiness’. Two hours later (while in the toilet!) I couldn’t walk. I tried everything: dry needling, mobilisation, gentle range of movement work, tape and cushioning support, was icing it relentlessly, initial rest and finally…..diclofenac/difene. I knew I was struggling but it took the edge off. I thought ‘it’ll be ok, no one will notice, we have two games left, f#*k it’ll push through and sort it properly at the end of the season’.

Then as they do the games started being delayed for different reasons but I had to keep training to keep my spot. The injury was now worsening and the finish line moving further away and by the end, I was taking 225mg of difene a day to play and then even walk due to the cumulative loading. Now I know this seems ridiculous for amateur football but as this article also states ‘the pressures on players are relative, the driver may be to keep his place in the team, or perhaps to be part of winning a title. When a few pills can make that happen, despite the risks, it’s an easy decision to make’.

All of a sudden my silly decision backfired. My body just had enough. The difene was eating my stomach apart and I had heartburn and indigestion that would keep me up at night. “The most common problems associated with overuse are damage to the stomach lining, stomach ulcers, kidney damage and potential issues with rehydration and blood circulation.” At this stage my foot was in bits, I couldn’t run not to mind shoot and play as I wanted and obviously, the management saw the same. Eventually, I got the call to to say I wouldn’t be starting as I was ‘dragging my foot around the pitch’. The initial driver was now gone.

The funny thing is with the game delays it ended up being about 4 weeks from the original injury to the next game and through a bit of rest (which is so vital like I discussed in my Federer blog) I probably would have been fine to play the last two games. But you get caught up in what’s going on and plow on! Like I say in my clinic every day “pain is there for a reason. It’s usually a danger sign — something untoward is happening”. It’s not necessarily severe damage like in this instance my body was simply telling me to rest my foot but I didn’t heed my own advice and it didn’t work out personally but I have certainly learned from it! By the by, we won the last two games and got promoted and are now flying high undefeated at the top of the Premier!

Another really important message here is to be wary of the addictive properties of prescription analgesics and anti-inflammatories available that are available over the counter! If you think I am being dramatic check out Louis Theroux’s latest documentary about ‘Heroin Town’ where describes how people start with legitimate pain, went to the doctor, got legal prescriptions and then got addicted.

Listen to your body even if I didn’t. Thanks for reading, Colin!