Vioxx taken out of locker rooms

Updated: October 5, 2004, 6:31 AM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

The worldwide recall of Vioxx is not causing the same stir in the sports world as it is among geriatric circles. But, as expected, team trainers and doctors are removing the drug from locker rooms.

Commonly used among the elderly as an arthritis medication, Vioxx also was used by athletes to help dull the pain related to their sports injuries. The drug's manufacturer, Merck, pulled the pills off the market on Thursday.

Despite obeying the warnings, several team physicians say that athletes weren't in the risk category that ultimately led to Merck's decision.

Jets team doctor Elliott Pellman, who serves as the NFL's medical liason, said that "on the whole, for the athletes taking Vioxx, this was an immeasurably safe medication. This was not the patient population that the FDA nor Merck was concerned about."

Merck voluntarily withdrew the drug from the market after a three-year internal study showed that long-term use doubled the risk of heart attacks. The Food and Drug Administration found that patients who took the drug's maximum dosage tripled their risk of triggering a heart attack.

"We don't typically have athletes on these type of anti-inflammatories for longer than two weeks at a time," New York Knicks trainer Mike Saunders said, "so this is not a crisis for us."

Overuse of anti-inflammatories has been a concern in the sports world. When Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with kidney disease, many speculated that the excessive levels of anti-inflammatories contributed to his condition. Current Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, who at the time was playing for the Lakers, said he was scared because he had been taking an anti-inflammatory for seven years.

In recent years, Vioxx gained popularity in the locker room since it is known as a non-steroidal medication that would reduce pain without the side effects of an ibuprofen, which would commonly cause stomach pain and was more likely to lead to ulcers with repeated use.

Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist, and Dorothy Hamill, who won gold in figure skating that year, previously endorsed Vioxx.

Gary Sheffield started taking the drug for his ailing shoulder earlier this year. But the New York Yankees outfielder told MLB.com on Friday that he would now be taking Advil to relieve the pain.

"I saw the report, so I'll stop taking it," Sheffield said. "You would have thought they would have known this before. To hear it now, it was sort of strange."

Saunders said the recall of Vioxx will simply mean that trainers will seek other alternatives, including using other anti-inflammatories as well as perhaps use more ice when treating their athletes. Saunders also said that topical sports creams, such as Flexall and Flex-Power, might be used more.

Approximately half of NFL and NBA teams buy Flex-Power, a topical sports cream that is commonly used before and after games.

The company's president Rasheen Smith says that the Vioxx recall potentially opens up a huge piece of the pie for topical creams and ibuprofen. Merck sold $2.5 billion worth of the drug in 2003 alone.

Said Smith: "We not only expect to see more business from teams, but also from the general consumer marketplace."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter