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Reading The Play: How To Identify and Prevent Opioid Dependency In Athletes

Reading The Play: How To Identify and Prevent Opioid Dependency In Athletes

It’s a story that is becoming more and more familiar in today’s society. A promising young athlete’s life is destroyed due to Opioid Use Disorder. It’s all too sad, and throughout the country many of us may directly know someone who suffered. Not only does this issue affect the person using or abusing these substances and becoming physiologically and/or psychologically dependent on them, it affects all of those around them, including family and teammates.

According to the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, high school athletes are one of the most at-risk demographics for becoming addicted to prescription pain medications. Another report from the University of Michigan found that male athletes are four times more likely to misuse painkillers than their non-athlete peers.

How has this become so commonplace and how can we prevent it?

Athletes are taught to challenge themselves, and to exhibit toughness in the face of adversity. They learn to fight through pain and push until they achieve their goals. Playing through an injury is often greeted with approval and praise rather than concern and sympathy. This is commonplace in professional sports. Amateur athletes often emulate and aspire to be like the professional athletes they look up to. The story of athletes developing an opioid use disorder usually starts here; with an injury.

An athlete suffers a significant injury – sometimes requiring surgery – and is prescribed opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone (OxyContinâ) or hydrocodone (Vicodinâ) to help relieve pain during the healing process. Taken in large enough doses, the athlete can experience a euphoric high. Opioids act by binding to opioid receptors, and dependence can develop in as quickly as five days (click here for more information about Opioids and the Brain). This leads to the athlete needing to experience that sensation even after their injury is healed because, although they are no longer dealing with being in pain, their body, and potentially mind, are craving that sensation from the medications.

Whether because they have recovered from their injury, or their doctor has under-prescribed the medication out of fear of addiction, patients who cannot continue on prescribed medications often go in search of the same medications somewhere else; a friend who has also been prescribed medications and is no longer using them, or stealing from the medicine cabinet at home. If all else fails, they go in search of a drug dealer who may have the medications, or if not, sell them synthetic opioids or other illicit substances like heroin.

A quick online search leads to numerous stories of athletes who were chasing their dreams of becoming world-class athletes when opioid use began and sent them down a path towards Opioid Use Disorder, sometimes resulting in accidental overdose and death. Each year in towns all across the country, reports of student athletes succumbing to opioid abuse make the rounds online as families and communities plead for something to be done.

The problem isn’t centralized to any one sport, demographic, or region; A seven-month Sports Illustrated investigation found overdose victims in baseball, basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, volleyball and wrestling—from coast to coast. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed.

Preventing abuse

Knowing the signs can help you see if someone is dealing with an opioid issue. Signs include: small pupils, slowed breathing, poor coordination, and lack of awareness to surroundings.

Everyone involved in an athlete’s life has a part to play in helping them overcome an opioid use disorder. Family, friends, teammates, and teachers have an impact and an important role towards recovery. Often, just talking to them gives them an outlet for negative feelings and ailments.

Traditional forms of treatment such as in-patient and out-patient rehabilitation clinics often prescribe medications like Buprenorphine and Naloxone (together, Suboxoneâ) which interfere with the receptors that get triggered by opioids, suppress the effects of opioid use which lead to cravings and withdrawal, and have proven to dramatically help patients in their recovery from opioid addiction.

States all over the country are requiring education for student athletes about abusing prescription pills. Starting in 2019, all student athletes in California are given an Opioid Factsheet from the CDC which must be signed by athletes 17 or younger in order to play.

Massachusetts, a state which has been hit the hardest, provides prevention services through the state’s Technical Assistance Partnership for Prevention (MassTAPP). This includes reading materials for students, parents, and coaches, as well as videos.

In June 2018, Bill H.R. 5992 was introduced to Congress called the “Student and Student Athlete Opioid Misuse Prevention Act” by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D) from Connecticut. This bill would allocate $10 million for the prevention of student and student athlete opioid misuse across the country. This bill would provide funding for both school and community-based programs aimed towards educating youth and high school aged students about the dangers of opioid abuse, dependence, and addiction.

As athletes, patients, families, and healthcare providers throughout the country look for help for the countless individuals affected by this epidemic, PursueCare is trying to de-stigmatize seeking help, and bridge some of the well-known gaps and barriers to accessing treatment. With a secure online platform that can be used on a computer, tablet, or cell phone, appointments with addictions treatment specialists has never been easier. Therapists are ready to partner with patients on the journey through recovery, and our prescribers are experts in Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). They can prescribe medications such as Suboxoneâ, using private telehealth technology on a platform aimed at bringing better care directly to patients. The discrete nature and expertise available with this model provides an individualized treatment structure that may be beneficial to athletes. It is designed to deliver treatment and support recovery without stigma, so that athletes can safely achieve every goal they pursue.


Drug Abuse in Athletes. (2018, December 07). Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.recovery.org/addiction/athletes/

Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Painkillers fuel growth in drug addiction. Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/painkillers-fuel-growth-in-drug-addiction

Intervention for a Teen Family Member. (2018, November 08). Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://talbottcampus.com/intervention-for-a-teen-family-member/

Opioid Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/prescription-drugs/opioids/

Special Report: How painkillers are turning young athletes into heroin addicts. (2015, June 18). Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.si.com/more-sports/2015/06/18/special-report-painkillers-young-athletes-heroin-addicts