Athletes, Sports and Addiction

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s largest public health agency, has called substance abuse an epidemic. Each year it claims more lives than car accidents or incidents involving firearms, making it the leading cause of accidental death in the country. Heroin use drives the epidemic – the number of heroin overdose deaths has tripled since 2010. It does not discriminate by race, gender, or class, cutting across demographics and striking rural, urban, and suburban areas.

There is one demographic in particular that’s experiencing an uptick in overdose deaths, and it’s one you might not expect. Young athletes are particularly vulnerable to opioid abuse, and the epidemic is ruining promising futures before they can get off the ground.

A Disturbing New Trend

In the early 2000s Jack Riley, then the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chief of Operations, noticed a change in the nation’s young athletes. At the time, he called them “unwitting customers of the cartels,” since local drug lords used their vulnerabilities to target them.

Hard evidence tracing the amount of heroin use among athletes is difficult to come by, but the headlines speak for themselves. A seven-month investigative report by Sports Illustrated found that athletes in all sports from coast to coast had reported instances of heroin overdose. Among their tallies were athletes in tennis, golf, wrestling, gymnastics, baseball, basketball, football, swimming, lacrosse, soccer, softball, and volleyball. Riley, who was a volunteer basketball coach saw one of his own young athletes die from a heroin overdose.

Why Athletes are At-Risk for Heroin Abuse

To understand the gravity of the relationship between sports and heroin, it’s necessary to have a working knowledge of how athletes choose to go down such a dangerous path. The National Institute of Health’s division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports the vast majority of the nation’s heroin users’ first abuse prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests as many as one in 15 people who take prescription painkillers for nonmedical use will try heroin within the next decade.

Heroin has a similar molecular structure to painkillers, but users can score a bag for just five dollars and achieve a more potent high. This makes the transition from prescription painkillers to heroin easy.

Are Doctors Over-Prescribing Painkillers?

In 1999, the American Medical Association designated pain as the “fifth vital sign,” revolutionizing the way doctors treat their patients. High School Narcotics StatisticsWhat started as an attempt for doctors to efficiently address and treat pain had unintended side effects. While reported cumulative pain measures among Americans have remained relatively constant, the number of prescribed pain medications quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. Though the AMA has since removed pain as a vital sign, the damage has already been done.

As scholarships and signing deals are on the line, young athletes are under intense pressure to “play through the pain.” A recent study from the University of Michigan had alarming results – by the time high school athletes reach their senior year, about one in 10 will have used a narcotic for nonmedical use. They also found that males who participated in competitive sports were twice as likely to have a prescription for medical painkillers, and were four times more likely to misuse painkillers than their peers who did not compete in competitive sports.

The lead researcher on the study found that contact sports such as football were more likely to socialize young athletes into viewing pain, risk, and violence as normative, which influences behavior both on and off the field.

Recovering Users Speak Out

Patrick Trevor was a sophomore and goalie of his lacrosse team in 2009 when he shattered his right thumb during practice. With a promising scholarship on the horizon, Trevor’s first concern was getting back on the field. He began to crush and snort his prescription painkillers, figuring that playing high was better than not playing at all.

Three years later, his scholarship dreams were a distant memory, and Trevor had made the transition to heroin. Instead of fielding balls at his dream university, he was taking trains to the most dangerous areas of Newark, NJ to score his next high. His family encouraged him to try rehabilitation several times, and he finally did. While in rehab, Trevor noted that many of his fellow heroin users were former rising athletes.

Directions for Further Research

Philip Todd Veliz, who headed the study at the University of Michigan, says this vulnerable population isn’t even on people’s radar. He cites a lack of reliable statistics and says researchers have a duty to look into this further to identify trends and inform public policy.

If there is an epicenter of this epidemic, its Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is situated less than 300 miles from the Mexican border, where much of the nation’s heroin originates. The New Mexico health department found the state-wide overdose death rate jumped in excess of 60% between 2001 and 2010. In the city alone, eight teenage athletes have died as the result of painkiller or heroin overdose since 2011.

Researchers and public health officials have a responsibility to look into these deaths and create comprehensive policies that protect this vulnerable population. With appropriate intervention and prevention, we can save lives and promote bright futures for our young athletes. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, contact The Treatment Center for quality care and assistance.

Athletes Are at a Great Risk of Drug Addiction Including Recreational Drugs & Painkillers

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