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Daniel Agger shines light on player injury problems that go beyond football

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Taking too many pills helped lead to the end of the career of an excellent defender -- and they weren’t even something most people would consider a problem.

Liverpool v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

One of the issues that has long plagued football, and sports in general, has been injuries to the players who are part of the game, injuries that take special talents and lessen them, that rob of us potential and actual stars, injuries that take great teams and make them ordinary. Another problem, though, is how players handle those injuries and deal with the pain, a problem that Daniel Agger knows too well.

The first thing Daniel Agger remembers is that he was unable to control his body. He did not feel any pain but he was just lying there shaking. Earlier that day, 8 March 2015, he had led out Brondby to face their rivals FC Copenhagen in a Danish league game. He lasted 29 minutes before being taken off. He then collapsed and was taken to the physiotherapist’s room at Parken.

He should never have played. He was carrying a knock from the week before and, like so many times in his career, he took a lot of anti-inflammatories – far more than the recommended dosage – and his body had had enough.

That’s the harrowing introduction of a story in The Guardian, one that any fan of any sport should read. Football fans can connect easier because it’s a story about a footballer, but it’s a story that exists in every sport. Players get hurt, they have to deal with pain, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well.

We’ve all heard horror stories about players getting hooked on painkillers, relying on prescription narcotics just to be able to deal with the pain that a life of athletics brings. It wears on your body even if you stay healthy, and for those plagued by regular injuries, it can be far worse. But even players who avoid narcotics can be at risk, because those weren’t Agger’s issue -- simple anti-inflammatories were.

Anti-inflammatories are perfectly fine and safe under normal circumstances. They include among them several names you see on over-the-counter bottles: ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. All have prescription forms, but you can also buy them in lower dosages in any drug store. Taken in low doses or as prescribed, they’re perfectly fine and helpful, but taken in too-large quantities over time, they can have serious side effects.

That’s what happened to Daniel Agger, a former star at Liverpool whose star fell because of persistent injury woes. That lead to heavy use of anti-inflammatories to deal with the pain and stay functional, and ultimately lead to the in-game collapse described above. He stopped using them that day, but the damage was done, and just over a year later, his career was over.

While the pills likely helped Agger’s career last as long as it did — and he did get 12 years of first-division football — they also helped end his career because of the serious impact of taking too many of them, something many, many athletes do just because it’s not something as "bad" as prescription painkillers. After all, if it’s sold at the corner drug store, how bad can it be?

Well, pretty bad. Heartburn. Ulcers. Liver and kidney damage. High blood pressure. All of these and more are known side effects of extended overuse of anti-inflammatories, as well as the risk of more serious problems like those Agger experienced last year.

And while Agger’s case is the only one where a player has come forward and talked about a side effect that serious, he’s far from the only player who has leaned on things like large quantities of a seemingly innocuous thing like over the counter anti-inflammatories to make it easier to make it to the next game.

Take a look inside the locker room of basically any sports team around. You’ll find at least one player taking the stuff by the handful just to make the aches and pains go away for awhile. It’s as common a sight as seeing boats on a lake on a warm summer day -- and it leaves all of those players running the risk of developing problems down the line.

Under normal circumstances, it’s perfectly safe to use. This isn’t meant to scare people out of using anti-inflammatories, merely to illustrate the choices and risks players take to stay on the field, choices meant in the end to benefit their teammates, and by extension us fans. We tend to think of players as entitled, self-interested superstars, but many of them make significant sacrifices and, at times, take significant risks for the sake of our entertainment.

Agger hopes that his story can help prevent more players from following his path. "I have taken too [many] anti-inflammatories in my career," he said in that interview. "I know that full well, and it sucks, but I did stop it [in the end]. I am not gaining anything personally from saying this but I can only hope that other athletes do. It could be that others take a pill or two less."

Hopefully Agger’s tale will do just that — and hopefully we can find a way to help keep players healthy that doesn’t run the risk of doing so much harm.