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Robert Turner, PhD, Conducts Research on Pain and Symptoms of Depression in Former Athletes

In a research paper published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, Robert Turner II, PhD, assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and other researchers, sought to expand upon prior investigations into risks for depressive symptoms in former athletes in the National Football League, particularly the impact pain has on these symptoms.

“We know the combination of depression and pain is strongly predictive of significant difficulties with sleep, social relationships, financial difficulties, and problems with exercise and fitness,” said Turner, a former NFL athlete and the author of “Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete.” “Because former athletes experience such high levels of chronic pain, we wanted to know if there were other mechanisms at work that could help us understand more about depression.” 

What they found was that functional limitations, such as trouble lifting and carrying, climbing, or walking up stairs, were significantly associated with depressive symptoms. 

In addition, physical functionality and activity may mitigate the risk of depression, even in the presence of significant bodily pain, the researchers found.

“Former NFL athletes are used to pain, it is something they have to adjust to and learn how to live with,” Turner noted. “However, it can be even more difficult, especially for younger former athletes, to have problems walking up a flight of stairs or carrying a bag of groceries.”

For the study, researchers used data from the National Football League Player Care Foundation Study of Retired NFL Players, a survey of retired players conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research with a cross-sectional field period that spanned 2006–2007.

Turner said now, with more information on the impact both pain and functional limitations have on the mental health of this population, there is a need for access to better data that provides insights on athletes’ concussive history, the position they played, cognitive function, and health care utilization. 

That information, Turner said, will allow researchers to ask better questions about pain, depression, and functional limitations as they relate to head injury, aging, and cognitive outcomes.

To view the paper, “Functional Limitations Mediate the Relationship Between Pain and Depressive Symptoms in Former NFL Athletes,” published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, please visit, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1557988319876825.