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Starkey: NFL's 'magic pill' poses risks

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Before the Steelers take the field for their de facto playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, several of them will swallow what some call a “magic pill,” courtesy of the medical staff.

The brand name is Toradol, but for all the love it gets in NFL player circles, it might as well be called Adore-adol. It is an athlete's best friend on game day because it can attack his two worst enemies — pain and inflammation — before they attack him.

For some, popping a Toradol has become as much a part of the pregame ritual as taping an ankle.

“The doctors say it helps,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “So I get it.”

“If you are in pain, it more or less masks it,” backup quarterback Charlie Batch said. “But you feel it 24 to 48 hours after the fact.”

“For me, it stops postgame swelling,” linebacker James Harrison said.

Veteran linebacker Larry Foote remembers older players telling him about Toradol when he joined the Steelers a decade ago. He didn't worry about risks (he says he wasn't warned of any) because the reward was so great.

“All I know is once I got it, I said, ‘Ooooh, is this good,' ” Foote said.

Toradol has been described as a wonder drug, like Motrin on steroids — only it's non-steroidal, non-addictive and FDA-approved.

And if that sounds too good to be true, maybe it is.

Former Seattle Seahawks doctor Pierce Scranton, in a game-changing report on HBO's “Real Sports” in January, told Andrea Kremer that NFL players' chronic use of Toradol — which normally is prescribed for post-surgical patients — is akin to a game of “Russian roulette.”

Kremer told the cautionary tale of recently retired NFL center Jeremy Newberry suffering from Stage 3 kidney failure doctors attributed to Toradol.

Foote has spoken to doctors who tell him that if the drug is used only on game days, the health risk is small.

Of course, 16 to 20 times a year over 10 years means 160 to 200 times overall.

Fact is, the drug has not been studied enough to identify long-term ramifications, though its listed potential complications include kidney failure and liver damage. Toradol also inhibits platelet function, which could make for brain bleeding in players who sustain head injuries.

You had to know this would come back to concussions. It seems every NFL-rated issue does.

In addition to 2,000-plus ex-players suing the league on concussion-related issues, 12 filed a Toradol-related lawsuit last December. Plaintiffs alleged that a drug they were given without warnings may have prevented them from feeling concussions sustained while playing.

The NFL obviously wishes to avoid such headaches in the future, so it was no surprise that the NFL Physicians Society last summer formed a task force to review the use of Toradol.

Ryan Clark, who takes Toradol on game days, says he had no idea what it was at first. He has tried to learn, but there's only so much material.

“What's the risk, or what happens further down the line?” Clark said. “I truly don't know.”

Harrison believes 40 percent of NFL players use Toradol. Foote estimates around 15 Steelers players (about a third of the roster) receive a dose on game day.

In the wake of the Physician Society study, the drug now is provided mostly in pill form instead of as an injection. Also, some team doctors are making players sign waivers, absolving the doctor and the team of liability.

That was met recently with a players' union grievance saying that if a doctor believes a player would “be placed at an unacceptable medical risk by using Toradol ... the team's medical staff should inform the player of that opinion and refuse to administer Toradol.”

It is unclear if the Steelers' medical staff requires a waiver. Foote said he had to sign one. Others say they did not.

“They did,” Foote said.

The Steelers declined to answer that question but issued this statement: “Our medical staff would only administer medication after discussing with the player the benefits and any potential risks associated with the treatment.”

So there you have it. Everybody is trying to protect something: the union its members, the league its rear end and the players their paychecks.

Quite the dilemma, isn't it?

Ultimately, a man has to educate himself on the potential dangers of anything he puts into his system.

But too much education could hurt the product, if you know what I mean.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

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