When Canadian UFC middleweight Elias Theodorou fights, he does so in some amount of pain. That’s because he still doesn’t have permission to use medical marijuana.
Theodorou lives with bilateral neuropathic pain and has used cannabis to treat his condition when he is safely outside of the in-competition window, which begins noon the day before a fight and ends after a post-fight sample, administered for the UFC by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), is collected.
Twenty months into a push to get the UFC’s first therapeutic exemption for marijuana, Theodorou still hasn’t given up. In the physically punishing world of mixed martial arts, as with many sports, there is tremendous potential for cannabis to be used to treat pain relief and aid recovery. As MMA fighter, Nate Diaz, once said about his cannabis use, “It helps with the healing process and inflammation, stuff like that. So you want to get these for before and after the fights, training. It’ll make your life a better place.”
More Than One Way to Fight Pain
The World Anti-Doping Agency approves only some types of medications for pain. NSAIDs relieve acute pain and have some mild side effects. Prescription NSAIDs come with a warning about heart attack, stroke, and stomach bleeding, but even over-the-counter NSAIDs like Ibuprofen and Aspirin can have damaging long term effects. As one study published by the Annals of Long Term Care noted, “The NSAID should be used at the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time.”
Skeletal muscle relaxants can help an athlete improve acute or chronic low back pain, muscle tension, and mobility but they come with the risk of dependency. And, it is without a doubt that opioid drugs like tramadol remain to be the most contested WADA-approved drugs athletes are given access to as it they have strong clinical utility and even more potential for abuse.
Offering patients access to cannabis appears to lead to a significant drop in prescription opioid use. Researchers from the University of California San Diego and Weill Cornell Medical College recently studied the correlation between the legalization of medical cannabis and prescription opioid use over 21 years. The team found that legalization led to a nearly 30 percent drop in opioid use, suggesting the patients were opting to treat their pain with cannabis instead.
In this study, medical cannabis use was associated with a 64 percent decrease in opioid use, decreased number and side effects of medications, and an improved quality of life.
Angelina Blessed Recovers with Cannabis
Following a concussion that changed how she trained, Toronto’s Angelina Blessed (nee Musicco) used cannabis to improve not only her training but how she recovered.
Angelina is known for her devotion to cannabis for recovery from hours of daily Muay Thai training. “It’s given a different movement to what I do,” she tells Strainprint. “It has slowed things down but made my moves more powerful.” She relies on CBD for recovery but credits some of her more profound athletic breakthroughs to a combination of cannabis and float therapy.
“I was dealing with so many athletic issues myself with injury and cortisol level issues and the things I wasn’t understanding about my body because my whole philosophy of training was like go harder, push more, train more, take no days off. All of that stuff that I thought was making me a stronger, better athlete was, as I was getting older, really starting to slow me down.”
To aid in recovery, Angelina consumes cannabis before floating in a sensory deprivation tank—a practice championed by UFC announcer and podcaster, Joe Rogan—to help relax the body, calm the mind and reduce inflammation.
Imagine a pod filled with 1,000 tonnes of Epsom salts and just enough water to keep the body afloat. It may be a relatively new practice, but sensory deprivation is in use by athletes across a range of sports. Track and field athlete, Carl Lewis, used the float tank to run through visualization techniques in preparation for his gold medal long jump at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and even two-time NBA MVP, Stephen Curry will hop into the tank every two weeks for a session.
The magnesium from the float tank alone should induce restful and restorative sleep but combined with cannabis it is an even more powerful recovery tool. There have been a number of studies done on the science of cannabinoid medicine and sleep; it should be noted that although tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is often assumed to be the sleep-inducing ingredient in cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD) has been observed to have positive effects on sleep as well.
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, results suggested that “160 mg/day of CBD increased total sleep time and decreased the frequency of arousals during the night” for the male and female subjects, who were between the ages of 18 and 35, and experiencing insomnia.
Next, we will go further into the future of cannabis sports medicine and the studies that could crack the existing theories wide open.