Teen Athletes, Scoring On the Field … And Off

It is time to recognize high school sports as the high-risk activities they are. For some young men, the combination of performance pressure, injury, and treatment with opioid painkillers creates a toxic mix – leading to drug abuse and sometimes death.

Recent research from the University of Michigan found that one in nine high school athletes used a narcotic pain reliever or opioid – such as OxyContin or Vicodin. Among male athletes who participate in competitive sports, the risk of prescription drug abuse quadruples compared to other teens.

The risk of 30-day prescriptions

Generally, athletes get opioids from their doctors. Many athletes want the pain relievers so they can continue to play while injured. This is possible because many physicians provide prescriptions that mask the pain from the injury.

Two factors increasing the risk of addiction are surplus medications and the increased availability of cheaper alternatives when prescribed medications run out.

Most prescriptions are often given for a 30-day supply, when pills are only needed for two or three days. Once the medication is no longer needed to reduce pain, there is an enhancement in the euphoric feelings. Many kids like the feeling they get from opioids – it’s energizing, almost like a stimulant. They are eager to wash the car, party with friends, or just enjoy the buzz.

Narcotic addictions don’t take long to develop. With daily use, dependence and tolerance requiring ever higher doses to produce the same pain relief or high can happen in just days or weeks.

Prescription opiate abuse is an expensive habit. On the street, these drugs go for 50 cents to $1 per milligram. The costs go up along with the user’s tolerance as more and more pills are needed to achieve the same feeling.

Heroin, the cheaper, riskier alternative

More than 80% of new heroin addicts started by abusing prescription opioids. Heroin is easy to obtain on campuses nationwide.

Why would a regular kid turn to heroin? A dealer will explain that they can get five to seven times as many highs for the same price as prescription opioids. It’s simple, dangerous math.

Heroin purity and potency are greater now than in past decades, so new users can get high effectively by snorting it or putting it on foil and inhaling as they burn it. As tolerance increases, they switch to the most efficient delivery system: injection.

The NCAA recommends that physicians:

• Reconsider use of opioids. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen effectively control moderate pain and can significantly reduce even severe pain.
• Prescribe opioids for a very limited time and write prescriptions for just the amount needed, usually just two or three days.
• Explain to the athlete and parent the risks of addiction and overdose.

Coaches, parents and athletes should quit encouraging athletes to “play through the pain.” It is important to teach young people to listen to their bodies instead of over-relying upon medications.