Opioid addiction is a very serious problem in America today, with countless people addicted to prescription pain pills and/or heroin. How individuals become addicted to opioids varies from person to person, but for athletes who become addicted the pattern of addiction is actually quite predictable. Sadly, even with all the increased awareness about opioid addiction, it is still not uncommon to see athletes prescribed these drugs, and sometimes with minimal supervision. As the drug takes hold, the user finds that he or she must continue to use it or experience terrible side effects upon withdrawal. It is at this very juncture that so many innocent athletes, never interested in using drugs or much less becoming addicts, find themselves as they try to figure out how their lives took such a terrible turn regarding pain management and addiction?
The unique pattern of addiction for athletes
Perhaps the most important thing for any athlete is to be healthy enough to play. Unfortunately, with sport participation there are potential injuries that can occur at any moment, and most are quite painful. During the rehabilitation period following an injury and/or surgery, athletes need to manage their pain and are often prescribed various narcotics, including Vicodin or Percocet. Most athletes who have followed this rehab pattern and later battled opioid addiction have told me fairly predictable things, including:
- They only followed their doctor’s orders, never once thinking it was possible to become addicted to the very same drugs being prescribed to treat their pain.
- They assumed whatever was being prescribed to them was safe.
- Because of fear of losing their spot on the team, or possibly seeing their career end prematurely because of the injury, they weren’t in the best frame of mind to make solid critical decisions about the drugs they were being prescribed (in other words they were vulnerable and susceptible to doing just about anything).
- When the prescription ran out and they were already addicted, they turned to buying pain pills off the street until they became too expensive (these pills can easily run $20-30 a pill, or more).
- They turned to heroin as a cheaper, easier to find drug that produced the same, if not greater effect.
While we are all ultimately responsible for the decisions we make in life, it’s also important to acknowledge unique variables that can leave people in vulnerable and potentially dangerous situations. For athletes who become addicted to pain pills, in most cases their addiction occurred because of their compliance to treatment, not because they were living reckless lives and making poor decisions.
Athletes need full disclosure about these drugs
Athletes dealing with injuries who might be prescribed opioids need to be fully aware of how addicting these drugs can be, and how some can become addicted after their first use. Of course, most health care professionals will entertain other means beyond opioids to control pain, but when opioids are prescribed athletes need to be fully aware of all consequences, including addiction. These warnings also need to be much more than forms the athlete quickly signs without reading, but instead very detailed in nature and delivered to athletes when they are most tuned in to what is happening. Even then, the hope here is that these drugs are only used in extreme cases as I have seen too many very fine and responsible athletes succumb to this terrible addiction.
Injuries will always be a part of sports, but it’s important that we pay close attention to the ways in which athletes manage their pain with medication. While opioids may be effective in helping athletes their pain initially, these drugs are very addictive and can lead to a host of future problems and dangers — including death. Moving forward, we need to continue to examine options beyond opioids when it comes to controlling pain, as well as help athletes kn ow the seriousness of opioid addiction.