Painkillers & Anti-inflammatories
Fighters have differing attitudes to the use of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. There are those that won’t touch them, and there are those who pop them like M&Ms. Sadly, in a few cases they’ve caused problems, both with positive drug tests and also issues with addiction and dependency.
So – as a fighter, is there a place for painkillers? And if so, what should you, or shouldn’t you take?
Painkillers (analgesics) and anti-inflammatory drugs can be a useful tool in the management of certain injuries, but it’s important to understand the pros and cons, and especially how they can affect your health and performance as a fighter.
One potential advantage of taking painkillers is that by reducing pain, they may help to encourage mobility and normal movement patterns. For most injuries, this is a good thing and will help to speed up recovery. People sometimes worry that taking medication to relieve pain will allow them to cause further damage to the injured area by masking the warning signals. For everyday activities, this is rarely an issue: your body is usually very good at letting you know if you shouldn’t be doing something. However, combat sports training can be a little different, so if you’re considering taking painkillers to allow you to continue training or competing with an injury, please discuss it first with your doctor or sports injury professional.
There are many different types of analgesics available, some that you can buy over the counter, and others that are only available on prescription. Each has own its advantages and disadvantages. In this blog, we’ll give an overview of a few of the more common types of medication you may encounter, and highlight some of the issues to consider with each.
When used correctly, this is one of the safest painkillers. It’s often underrated, perhaps because it is so cheap and easily available, but it can be surprisingly effective when used correctly. It can also be taken in combination with some other painkillers for increased effect (consult your pharmacist for advice).
Side effects are generally rare, but they do include the danger of liver damage if you take too much – so never use more than the stated dose, and speak to your doctor if you find yourself using it for a prolonged period.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
This class of medicines includes common “over the counter” medicines such as ibuprofen and aspirin as well as prescription drugs such as diclofenac, naproxen and others. As well as relieving pain, these also work to reduce inflammation. They work best when taken at regular intervals, but you shouldn’t take them for more than a week without speaking to your doctor.
Different NSAIDs suit different people and different conditions. If one isn’t working well for you, or is giving you nasty side effects, then discuss this with your doctor to see whether something else would suit you better. Asprin, in particular should usually be avoided by fighters because of its blood thinning effects. This may make it harder to stop the bleeding from any cuts you pick up during the fight.
A common side effects of NSAIDs is stomach complaints, including possible bleeding and stomach ulcers. This is why they should always be taken together with food, to reduce the risk. NSAIDs can also be tough on your kidneys. If you’re in good health with no prior history of kidney disease, you may think you have nothing to worry about. However, if you’re going to be making a big weight cut then think ahead. Dehydration and NSAIDs together can be a bad combination that increases your risk of kidney damage, with potentially serious consequences.
In some people, particularly those with asthma or allergies, some NSAIDs can also increase breathing problems. If you find yourself wheezing more than usual, or that your childhood asthma has suddenly flared up again, then discuss this with your doctor.
The stronger stuff
Opiates (sometimes referred to as narcotics) are chemically related to morphine and are very effective at reducing pain. They include medium strength painkillers such as codeine as well as strong prescription drugs such as oxycodone. Opiates often cause drowsiness, which presents obvious problems for a fighter wishing to train. They can also lead to serious problems, including dependency or addiction, so need to be used carefully and with medical supervision.
Some of the stronger opiates are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and by many of the athletic commissions that regulate MMA in the US. If you’re subject to any kind of drug testing, then you should always check with the appropriate governing body whether any medication is permitted before taking it. Don’t assume that just because it was prescribed for you by a doctor that it’ll be ok.
Muscle relaxants (e.g. diazepam) are occasionally prescribed for injuries involving severe muscle spasms (some back or neck injuries, for example). The side effects include severe drowsiness and sedation – if you’re taking these for an injury, then you almost certainly shouldn’t be training!
Cortisone injections are sometimes used for treatment of inflammation in joints or tendons. They’re sometimes referred to as “steroid injections” because they contain corticosteroids – hormones that have an anti-inflammatory effect – but shouldn’t be confused with the performance enhancing anabolic steroids.
You often hear of athletes having cortisone injections to suppress the symptoms of an injury long enough to get through an important event. In many cases, though, the original problem will eventually return and cortisone can in some circumstances weaken tissues and cause further problems, especially if used repeatedly.
There are certainly situations where a cortisone injection can be useful, or necessary, but they shouldn’t be used as a “quick fix” or an alternative to addressing the root causes of the problem, and not without careful consideration of the potential risks and benefits.