How basketball legend Lauren Jackson won the battle against prescription painkillers with medicinal cannabis

Key points:

  • Lauren Jackson says medicinal cannabis has “been incredible” for her chronic pain management
  • Jackson is part of an advisory board helping to develop the drug to treat chronic pain and concussion
  • She hopes her experience using medicinal cannabis will help reduce the stigma around it

Lauren Jackson was just six years old when she played her first game of competitive basketball for a local under-10 side in her hometown of Albury, New South Wales.

Unbeknown to those watching, this basketball prodigy was destined for greatness.

The first Australian player ever to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Jackson is regarded as one of the world’s best female basketballers of all time.

“It feels like a bit of a dream now, it really does,” Jackson said. “I feel like a completely different person, which I am, but looking back I was so fortunate to have played basketball at that level and to have competed at such a high level for so long.”

A two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm (2004 and 2010), three-time MVP (2003, 2007, 2010), seven-time WNBA All-Star and overall number-one pick in the 2001 draft, Jackson also won four Olympic medals (three silver and one bronze) and guided the Opals to a coveted World Cup victory in 2006.

But a degenerative knee injury cut her phenomenal career short, forcing her to retire in early 2016, denying Jackson what would have been a fifth Olympics in Rio.

No fairytale ending

“It didn’t end the way I wanted it [to],” she said.

“There were highs and some pretty big lows as well.”

Jackson underwent countless surgeries during her career and often resorted to painkillers.

Chronic, debilitating pain around her knee, hip and lower back continued to plague her after she retired.

“I’ve been open about my battle with prescription medication during my career and when I retired, I went off everything because I wanted to raise my kids and just be the very best version of myself.”

After consulting her GP, Jackson explored alternative treatments to pain and was prescribed medical cannabis.

“It’s been incredible,” she said. “It’s helped me a lot and gotten me to the point where I’m able to train again and live a very active lifestyle with my two little boys.”

Jackson is part of a new Sport Advisory Board, run by Melbourne-based sports medicine company, Levin group, that develops pharmaceutical-grade medicinal cannabis for the treatment of chronic pain and concussion.

She hopes her personal experiences will help reduce the stigma associated with medicinal cannabis.

“It’s something that I personally believe in because of how my body has handled it,” she said.

“I just want to help get the message out there and hopefully help change people’s lives.”

Wanting to be the ‘best version of herself. Jackson went off all painkillers and started using medical cannabis for her chronic pain.

Lauren Jackson: New kid on the block

Dr Rowena Mobbs, a neurologist from Macquarie University, claims there’s mounting evidence for cannabinoid therapies and medicinal cannabis use for chronic pain.

“But as far as management of head injury and concussion in general, this is really the new kid on the block,” she said.

Dr Mobbs works with concussion patients on a regular basis, including athletes with multiple concussion and repeated head traumas.

“We see this [medicinal cannabis] debate in epilepsy and pain management and understand people would want to try every option,” she said.

Medicinal cannabis was first raised as a potential therapeutic option in the 1930s and there’s evidence of cannabis first being used medicinally as far back as 400 AD.

“In head trauma, we’re interested as researchers in understanding it may have a benefit but it’s still early days,” Dr Mobbs said.

“We’re yet to see the detailed trials come out for cannabinoid but certainly the theory is there in that many regions of the brain contain cannabinoid receptor Type 1.”

Another area being explored is whether it may have potential benefits, as an add on or third line therapy.

This is where alternative therapies are considered, after a patient develops resistance to initial and secondary treatment options.

“We see patients more than a year after their concussion, truly in the post-concussion syndrome, where they’ve tried post traumatic migraine therapies without success,” Dr Mobbs said.

“So, these people may wish to reach out to cannabinoid therapies and medicinal cannabis.”

Like any form of medication, there can be side effects involving short-term memory and concentration.

 “We think largely cannabinoid therapies are safe but there can be side effects such as changes in sleep patterns, appetite, nausea and higher doses can have intoxicating effects,” she said.

More severe psychological side effects can include paranoia and agitation, but these are rare at low doses.

For those wishing to explore medical cannabis for chronic pain or concussion related injuries, Dr Mobbs recommends chatting to your local GP and carefully considering all options.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jackson, who is finally loving life after basketball.

“I’ve got two little boys who are starting to figure out that mummy was a basketball player and I get to share those stories with them and watch YouTube clips, which is pretty fun,” she said.

Though it may not be long before we see another basketball prodigy.

“My little bloke is actually playing hoops, which is pretty cool and I’m like the mum in the corner cheering him on.

“I have to stop myself and be like ‘Lauren settle down, he’s four years old’.”

Written by: ABC