Like wider society, sports are starting to explore the medical use of cannabis. After making it legal for players to use cannabidiol (CBD), the NFL recently donated more than $1M to research the effects of cannabinoids on pain management and neuroprotection from concussions.
The funding is a progressive move by the league to better understand and improve alternative pain management treatments. Research is beginning to indicate that CBD contains anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and analgesic properties, and can aid sleep and reduce anxiety. What remains to be studied, however, is how the compound impacts athletes and their performance.
Enter artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). As cannabis legalization progresses, many US states and universities are seeking to address the questions regarding cannabis’ clinical applicability in sports with cutting-edge technologies. From pain relief properties to reaction time and cardiorespiratory function, tech is shaping up as the key to unlocking the secrets behind sports rehabilitation and CBD.
The Physical Toll of Sports
For those who take part in sports regularly, the risk of painful injuries and inflammation is very high. Even without any actual injuries, the high-octane nature of sports often makes pain and inflammation part and parcel of the game. This can impede recovery and make it difficult to get back to physical activity, which is a huge problem for professional sportspeople like NFL players.
It’s for this reason that footballers had been lobbying to change the rules surrounding CBD. One of the things the chemical compound has become known for is its ability to fight pain, with some touting it as the next generation of painkillers. Research reflects the presence of anti-inflammatory properties in CBD, making it ideal for those who experience inflammation due to injuries or certain health conditions. This is in addition to other likely benefits such as reducing anxiety, aiding sleep and lowering stress.
With the use of CBD, athletes report being able to recover more quickly and easily from pain and inflammation, which enables them to get back to the game sooner. It’s the self-reported benefits of CBD that saw the NFL Players Association announce last year it would no longer suspend for positive marijuana tests. Now, the issue for professional sporting bodies like the NFL is in taking the drug from anecdotal evidence to clinical research.
Digging Into the Chemical Compound of CBD
Despite the urgency for rigorous clinical research, government red tape has slowed progress and tied scientists’ hands. Thankfully, supply issues are beginning to ease in the United States and scientists count next-generation technology at their disposal.
For example, the NFL’s recent research funding will leverage emerging science, current data sets and archival material related to the use of alternatives to opiates in the management of pain, as well as the impact of cannabis or cannabinoids on athletic performance in elite football players. Here, AI and ML will prove critical in making sure that the correct compound is under the microscope.
A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that many other active compounds in cannabis interact to influence its effects. The scientists discovered that those compounds are seldom tested for and strain name is not indicative of potency or chemical makeup. ML techniques in this way help fill gaps in the data and assure researchers that they are testing for the correct compound. Over time, if more people share more of their data, ML could make better inferences about how these different cannabinoids work or interact with each other in relation to pain management.
In my view, big data will be the differentiator in this space. Most pharma companies already leverage advanced ML algorithms and AI-powered tools to streamline their drug discovery process. These intelligent tools are designed to identify intricate patterns in large datasets and, therefore, can be used to solve challenges associated with complicated biological networks. This capability is excellent for trawling through scientific literature to find relevant studies as well as combining different datasets.
Likewise, automation will help to investigate the anecdotal patient experiences of CBD. For example, AI solutions apply Natural Language Processing (NLP) to extract clinical data — such as symptoms, diagnoses and treatments — from patient records. Its software can even identify patients with conditions not explicitly mentioned in electronic health record data, improving the match rate between patients and clinical trials. This structuring of information that was previously unstructured can, again, create bigger datasets to investigate.
Time and Tech Will Tell
The truth is that we don’t yet know how far CBD’s pain-fighting properties go. Additional research, funding and technology promise scientific understanding to this end. The good news is that early studies on rodents point to potential curative powers in CBD. One study, for example, found that rubbing CBD cream on the joints of arthritis-afflicted rats could help treat their ailment by reducing inflammation. Another one found that CBD could also reduce pain from osteoarthritis. Researchers showed that rats were able to bear more weight on their afflicted limbs and had less inflammation in their joints after taking CBD.
Of course, rodents aren’t people, and it’s up to scientists to test these preliminary results in human trials. Even with mountains of anecdotal evidence, there remain major blind spots when it comes to CBD’s impact on athletic ability. This includes, among many other things, the drug’s effectiveness regarding administration timing, chronic and acute effects, cumulative responses with other recovery strategies, differences in tolerance and effectiveness by sex and more. Again, incorporating state-of-the-art technology into such trials will prove key to understanding how athletes respond to the compound before, during and after use.
Another positive development in this space is that regulatory pressure on research institutions is easing. Since 1968, researchers have been limited to only one cannabis supplier: a National Institute of Drug Abuse-contracted facility at the University of Mississippi. In the past year, though, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced it was in the process of approving more domestic manufacturers. And with more manufacturers, researchers will be able to study a much better range of products, combinations of different components of cannabis and different methods of delivery.
With more products to test and more data to research, scientists will be in a far better position to draw conclusions about sports rehabilitation and CBD. There are many questions that scientists – armed with bleeding-edge tech – will be able to dig into: Can cannabis reduce opioid use? Can it work with other issues, from Parkinson’s disease to back pain? Does THC improve the effects of CBD or other cannabinoids? What are the potential side effects and serious drug contraindications consumers need to know?
And, of course, can CBD help athletes manage pain? Time and tech will tell.
About the Author
Scott Mazza is the co-founder and COO of Vitality CBD. Hailing from a background in finance, Scott is well-versed in the benefits of hemp and an advocate for the legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana. Scott is passionate about providing people with a natural alternative to the pharmaceutical industry.
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