Shot here, pill there: Many top athletes are starting to run around with painkillers like ibuprofen. A former footballer reports serious consequences. Doping experts and doctors warn.
Tennis player Rafael Nadal could not have won the French Open title without “a little anti-inflammatory” in his problem foot.
Football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic survived much of the previous AC Milan championship season with a ruptured cruciate ligament only thanks to painkillers. Liverpool’s Thiago went numb after receiving a pain-relieving injection in the Champions League final. Can elite sport still work without painkillers? The development is alarming. Doctors and doping experts warn of dramatic health consequences and call for more sensitive use of ibuprofen and Co. – do not believe in improvement.
Sports doctor sees “abuse”
These are pills that reduce fever, inhibit inflammation or relieve pain, the so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Drugs whose active ingredients are too weak to be on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list and which are usually available over the counter. “Except in special circumstances, such as Nadal’s chronic pain, medications are often taken prophylactically by professionals. This is an abuse, “sports doctor Wilhelm Bloch of the German Sports University in Cologne told the German news agency. The expert estimates that, depending on the sport and category, more than 50 percent of participants regularly use painkillers.
Former professional footballer Ivan Klasnic is one of the most famous sports cases of the use of painkillers and its consequences. Former Werder Bremen player told DPA he had been “poisoned toxic”. “Because I was given painkillers that I was not allowed to have.” The drugs destroyed his kidneys and led to three kidney transplants. A legal dispute with his former doctors ended in 2020 with a settlement.
everyday life in competitive sports
In addition to kidney damage, Bloch mentions primarily “damage to the liver and blood vessels” as possible consequences of long-term treatment. “And in endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, whose gastrointestinal microbleeding is more frequent anyway, NSAIDs can increase bleeding.” In addition, drugs can interfere with the healing process after an injury. “The tissue’s ability to regenerate is sometimes limited,” explained Bloch.
The list of athletes using painkillers can be continued after Nadal and Thiago. World football champion Toni Kroos revealed last year that he had played “six months on painkillers” due to an injury. Basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki said in 2016 that he did not need to take painkillers – but “other older veterans” did. And Norwegian skiing star Henrik Kristoffersen, who was able to ski again the day after a fall in 2015, said then: “My hip is all blue. It hurts. I took a painkiller – here I am.
This is how often everyday life in competitive sports looks like – said Bloch and reported on clubs where painkillers are common. “It’s like a bowl of candy, almost everyone grabs it.”
Less pain, more power
An investigation by the National Anti-Doping Agency (Nada) in German professional football showed that between the 2015/16 and 2019/2020 seasons, on average, every third athlete in the men’s and women’s divisions took painkillers before matches. Before the matches in the DFB Cup, the men’s limit is even 40%. The percentage of women is so high; according to the study, four out of ten footballers were taking painkillers. In the junior federal leagues it is 14 percent. The most commonly consumed food was ibuprofen.
Experts are still debating whether overuse of painkillers is doping. “Key. It’s basically about increasing efficiency, ”said Bloch. “Athletes reach the pain threshold under high stress. Many, when taking painkillers, try to exceed this limit in order to be able to act longer “- explained the expert.
Enlightenment instead of prohibition
So why not put these substances on the doping list? “It’s a hopeless fight. You are basically powerless when it comes to painkillers, said doping expert and pharmacologist Fritz Sörgel. “If you couldn’t take painkillers, it would end up in the Federal Constitutional Court.”
Rather than issuing prohibitions, Nada tries to talk to athletes about the causes and effects of overuse of painkillers and offers reasonable alternatives. In addition to behavioral preventive measures, a change in understanding of the system is also needed – both in the sports community and in society, the spokeswoman said.
© dpa-infocom, dpa: 220613-99-651407 / 4