When Nate Diaz (Mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighter) puffed a cannabidiol (CBD) vape pen after his loss to Conor McGregor in 2016, fans feared he would face anti-doping sanctions. Instead, it inspired an investigation that led to CBD’s removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances.
Today, anecdotes of athletes using CBD abound. And tending to sore muscles and injuries with topical applications may be the chief use of CBD among athletes.
In an interview with Emerald Report, horseback rider Ashleigh Strasheim disclosed that she used a CBD topical to wean off narcotics after a bone-breaking injury. Professional basketball player Adam Kemp uses topical CBD for his spinal compression facture. A Canadian Rugby team, the Toronto Wolfpack, even launched a line of topical CBD solutions for high-intensity athletes.
A review in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management refers to cannabinoid analgesics as “well tolerated in clinical trials with acceptable adverse event profiles.” 
Managing pain and inflammation with CBD offers an alternative to narcotics and even non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS). Although NSAIDS seem harmless, they have been associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke and gastrointenstinal bleeding.
CBD remains banned by most professional sports leagues, including the NCAA, NBA, and NFL. But CBD may have protective effects against concussions. This is why Jake Plummer and four other NFL players raised money to investigate CBD for pain and concussion symptoms.
Lester Grinspoon, MD (a cannabis pioneer who recently passed) even drafted an open letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodel recommending he “support a crash research program to determine that [a] combination of cannabinoids is effective in preventing the consequences of concussion.”
The endocannabinoid system has been shown to help modulate some factors associated with traumatic brain injury, such as cell death, neuroinflammation, and cerebrovascular breakdown.  In a three-year retrospective review, patients who had previously used cannabis and suffered a traumatic brain injury had a significantly greater survival rate compared to patients who had never used cannabis. 
Archaic regulations in professional sporting leagues prevent most active athletes from public endorsement. But many who suffer debilitating injury have no such qualms. And their voices are changing the landscape.
The BIG3 announced in 2018 that players would be permitted to use CBD for pain and recovery. As more athletes discover topical CBD–its ease and effectiveness–the major leagues are bound to follow suit.
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- Russo EB. Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2008;4(1):245-259.
- Schurman LD & Lichtman AH. Endocannabinoids: A promising impact for traumatic brain injury. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:69.
- Nguyen BM, et al. Effect of marijuana use on outcomes in traumatic brain injury. Am Surg. 2014;80(10):979-983.