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NFL and NFL Players Association fund Emory University-led study of innovative pain management solutions
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Melanie Kieve
Senior Director of Communications and Marketing
School of Nursing building

The National Football League and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have awarded a grant to an interdisciplinary team involving Emory University researchers to study innovative, first-of-their-kind, alternative pain management methods that could benefit NFL players and society at large. The researchers will investigate mindfulness-based intervention in sports medicine injuries.

The $200,000 grant was awarded by the NFL-NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee (PMC), which aims to facilitate research to understand and improve potential alternative pain management treatments for NFL players.

Emory’s winning proposal focuses on Implementing and Evaluating the Effect of Personalized Pain Coaches After Orthopaedic Surgery for Patients Who Sustain Sports Medicine Injuries to Improve Postoperative Outcomes." Leading the project are Nicholas Giordano, PhD, RN, assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing; Mara Schenker, MD, associate professor in the Emory School of Medicine Department of Orthopaedics and medical director at the Grady Orthopedic Center; and Cammie Wolf Rice, chief executive officer of the Christopher Wolf Crusade, a nonprofit organization supporting clinical interventions, education and policies that address the opioid crisis.

The clinical trial will examine how delivering a mindfulness-based intervention before orthopedic surgery to patients who sustain sports medicine injuries affects postoperative recovery related to patient-reported pain outcomes, use of opioids, and objective functional outcomes.

Mindfulness interventions — which include the intentional awareness of present-moment thoughts, emotions, sensations, and other internal or external stimuli – promote a sense of calm and have been found to improve physical and behavioral outcomes.

Certified Life Care Specialists from the Christopher Wolf Crusade will deliver multipronged, patient-centered, and tailored education to participants on implementing mindfulness practices such as sleep hygiene, progressive muscle relaxation, sound/music therapy, motivational interviewing/reflective listening, and diaphragmatic breathing. The Life Care Specialists also provide care coordination, wellness plans, and risk assessment.

The study team will then examine the benefits of the intervention — in person or online — compared to standard-of-care written instructions for managing postoperative pain. The team will collect information from Bluetooth-enabled wearable devices and patient-reported surveys over a three-month postoperative period.

"Our team is excited to receive funding for this study, which will rigorously evaluate the utility of mindfulness as a scalable, potentially opioid-sparing, patient-centered intervention," says Giordano. Schenker added that they anticipate their work will improve postoperative outcomes for NFL players, other athletes, and anyone with sports medicine injuries.

Rice said that the research project is an excellent example of how partnerships can be leveraged to address the opioid crisis. “We are excited about joining together the expertise of our Life Care Specialists and the research prowess of our academic partners,” she says. “We trust that our joint efforts will help lessen the need for opioid treatments for NFL players – and all those facing sports medicine injuries.”

The NFL and NFLPA are also excited about the possibilities of the research. “The Pain Management Committee is thrilled that the NFL and NFLPA are funding rigorous studies on multiple treatment modalities in order to improve the treatment of pain,” says Col. Geoffrey Ling, MD, PhD, co-chair of the NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee. “It is our hope that these studies will help the players manage the pain that may be a part of professional football.”

Participants in the study will be elite professional athletes outside of the NFL. The study will start in July 2023 and last approximately two years.

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