The Link Between Teen Athletes and Opioid Abuse and Addiction

Every year, millions of American teenagers partake in high school sports and become injured throughout the course of a season. As athletic participation and injury among the nation’s youth continues to increase, the number of emergency room visits, surgeries, and prescriptions for Opioid medications do as well. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 20 percent of all high school student athletic injuries require a physician’s attention. Due to their increased risk for injury, teens who partake in organized sports are much more likely to either be prescribed or exposed to Opioid medications than their nonparticipating peers.

A survey performed by the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse found that high school athletes are one of the most at-risk populaces for becoming addicted to prescription pain medications. For many student athletes addiction begins with a visit to the doctor’s office after sustaining an injury. They are prescribed some form of pain medication, such as Hydrocodone or Oxycodone, to help them manage pain while they heal. When used under close medical supervision and for short periods of time, Opioids can be a good option for pain relief. However, many student athletes will abuse the drugs and continue to take them far longer than originally intended. The pain relief, an eagerness to return to the field after injury, and the belief that such medications are “safe” because they’re prescribed by a doctor, are all contributing factors to the development of Opioid dependence and addiction in teen athletes.

The Pressure to Perform

It doesn’t take long for an athlete to learn that with the aid of Opioids, he or she can work out regardless of injury and even when in pain. This then encourages some athletes to continue to take higher doses of their medications or long after their original injury has healed. Additionally, many high school athletes hinge their identity and self-esteem on being an athlete. Out of fear of losing friends, relationships, social status, and sense of self, many will turn to Opioid abuse in order to remain relevant on the team and still compete. When an injury makes athletic activity impossible, a young athlete can develop a stress disorder or depression. Left alone to manage these new emotions with no outlet, some begin abusing their Opioid prescriptions as a form of self-medication. For many student athletes, losing the social connection with the team can be as damaging as the physical injury.

An injury to a high school athlete can be a significant disappointment for not only the student, but to his or her family and coaches as well. The pressure to perform can cause players to make risky decisions regarding their medications that can lead to Opioid misuse and addiction. Some student athletes admit to taking higher doses of their painkillers than prescribed in order to avoid having to sit on the bench and possibly disappointing those around them, despite the fact that their injuries haven’t fully healed. Others rely on their ability to perform in sports for scholastic and monetary reasons, producing a situation in which these athletes believe that they must self-medicate and push through the pain otherwise they may lose their chance to go to college.

With young adults putting such pressure on themselves to excel in sports, whether it be for social status at school, to make others proud, or to have their college paid for, using Opioid medications can become a slippery slope for some athletes. What started out as a quick pop of a painkiller to dull the pain of an injury can quickly lead to a physical dependence and, eventually, a full-blown addiction.

How to Avoid and Treat Teen Athlete Opioid Addiction

Coaches, teachers, and parents all play a unique role in young people’s lives and it is essential that these figures educate young athletes about the dangers of misusing pain medication. Simply talking to these athletes about their injury and treatment, and additionally encouraging them to talk to their physician about alternatives to Opioids, could save a teen from addiction.

Once a child is prescribed an Opioid medication, parents should closely monitor their child’s use to make sure that it is taken only as prescribed. Given the high potential for abuse, it is even a good idea for parents to keep control of the medication bottle and know the exact number of pills to ensure proper usage. Additionally, athletes should not be pressured to return to play too soon, as they may take higher doses of the pain medications to play through the pain. It is very important to encourage athletes to rest, heal, and rehabilitate both mentally and physically before returning to play. It is also important to know the signs of Opioid misuse. Signs of Opioid abuse include: small pupils, flushing of the face and neck, slurred speech, trouble staying awake or falling asleep at inappropriate times, and constipation. Those who misuse Opioids will also have behavioral changes, often becoming withdrawn and antisocial.

Another vital part of preventing Opioid misuse and distribution among teen athletes is the proper disposal of medications. Opioids should not be kept beyond the treatment time, nor should they simply be thrown in the garbage or flushed down a toilet. State agencies and local pharmacies have programs around the country that receive and properly dispose of Opioid medications. With collective cooperation and education, coaches, teachers, parents, and school administrators can all work together to help prevent and stop the spread of teen athlete Opioid addiction.