Chapter 3: Prescription Painkiller Addiction in Athletes
Part of being an athlete is dealing with a sports-related injury. For example, the injury rate in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football is 8.1 injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures. When an athlete is injured, they may receive a prescription painkiller to help them get through the healing process. Unfortunately, a prescription sometimes leads to opioid addiction.
Athletes may use painkillers first for their injury and then to relax. Opioid painkillers not only relieve physical pain, but they also make the user feel euphoric and stress-free. Athletes commonly abuse prescription painkillers, especially in the NFL where players regularly face the threat of concussions and sprains.
For example, 52 percent of professional football players used opiates at some point in their career, and 71 percent of those misused opiates. Retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medication four times more than the general population.
Most Common Prescription Opioids in Sports
Prescription opioids are medications prescribed to treat severe pain. A doctor might prescribe an opioid painkiller to a patient recovering from dental surgery or an athlete who suffered an injury. Prescription opioids are similar to the endorphins our bodies naturally produce to relieve pain and produce effects like heroin. They are usually prescribed for short-term use, however, due to their powerful effects, they pose the risk of addiction for anyone.
Commonly prescribed opioids used to treat severe pain include:
- Oxycodone such as OxyContin or Percocet
- Hydrocodone such as Vicodin
- Meperidine such as Demerol
Why Athletes Abuse Painkiller Medication
Prescription opioids block pain messages to the brain. They also cause a flood of feel-good chemicals like dopamine in the user’s brain. Users get addicted to the relief of physical and emotional pain.
Athletes may abuse painkiller medications to escape from a mental health problem or stress in addition to coping with physical pain from an injury. They might feel isolated during recovery and depressed that they are unable to play the sport they love. An athlete might fear what the future holds for their athletic career after a severe injury. Painkillers help soothe their worries.
Athletes may also abuse prescription painkillers to deal with the intensity of their sport regularly or to help them fall asleep at night.
Painkillers are addictive and pose serious problems for both mental and emotional health. There are safer alternatives to pain management such as physical therapy, chiropractic treatment or nutritional supplements.
What Are the Risks of Painkiller Abuse?
Perhaps the greatest risk of painkiller abuse is an overdose. According to the CDC, more than 40 percent of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid in 2016. From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
Taking too large of a dose or combining it with alcohol or other medications can slow breathing until it stops. Other health risks include:
- Withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, restlessness, bone pain and diarrhea
- Side effects such as nausea, confusion, constipation and sleepiness
- Heroin addiction
Opioid painkillers have a high potential for addiction and sometimes lead to heroin use. In 2015, approximately 2 million Americans had a substance abuse disorder related to prescription opioids. About 21 to 29 percent misuse their prescriptions, and eight to 12 percent of patients develop an opioid use disorder. Four to six percent who abuse prescription painkillers move to heroin.
Signs of Opioid Use Disorder
Not every athlete prescribed an opioid medication will become addicted to the drug. If an individual follows the doctor’s orders and only uses the medicine as prescribed for temporary relief, there should not be long-term consequences.
However, if you use a painkiller to escape a mental health issue, or if you take the medication beyond its intended use, you may have an opioid use disorder (OUD). You may have OUD if you:
- Can’t control use
- Can’t stop using despite issues
- Developed a tolerance to the drug
- Spend a lot of time thinking about and obtaining the drug
- Experience strong cravings to use the drug
- Experience withdrawal symptoms
If you have any of the above signs, know there is treatment available to you. Part of your treatment may involve reducing the dose until you can stop taking the drug completely. Withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, vomiting and intense cravings for the drug are unpleasant, but they are not dangerous. It is important for treatment to include behavioral therapy to help you learn to cope with the emotional aspect of addiction.
Although many athletes feel the need to appear stronger than non-athletes, we understand that addiction can happen to anyone. Coping with a sports injury is anything but easy, especially under pressure or in the face of persistent physical pain. We are here to help.
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