February 26, 2020

Do Sports Increase the Risk of Teen Opioid Abuse?

Can sports injuries lead to opioid abuse among teenagers?

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school athletics is more popular than ever. 2015-2016, nearly 7.9 MILLION students played some type of organized sports – the 27th consecutive year of increased participation.

Rightly so, playing a sport in high school is viewed as a positive –teenagers learn teamwork, responsibility, how to take direction, good sportsmanship, and the rewards that come from hard work.

But mounting evidence is starting to highlight a possible association between high school/college athletic injuries and addicting opioids – prescription painkillers and heroin.

Research Reveals a Startling Correlation
I didn’t really put two and two together until later… when I was a full-blown heroin addict. I knew painkillers were not good, but I didn’t know how crazy addictive they were.”

~Patrick Trevor, a high school lacrosse player who was prescribed Roxicodone for a thumb injury

In 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study to assess the non-medical use of prescription opioid medications among adolescents and teens participating in organized competitive sports. By analyzing data from the Monitoring the Future survey and other sources, researchers discovered the following:

  • Approximately 25% of public high school students play sports
  • Two MILLION high school sports injuries happen annually.
  • Roughly 1 out of 4 emergency room visits by adolescents/teens are sports-related.
  • Most of these injuries require pain management.
  • 1994-2007, the number of youths prescribed controlled medications nearly DOUBLED.
  • Over 15% of 12th-graders – 3 out of every 20 – have used a controlled medication non-medically within the past year.

At the end of the study, scientists concluded that students who participate in high-injury sports such as football, rugby, or wrestling have a risk of non-medical prescription use that is 50% higher than others who either played different sports or who did not participate at all.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that in 2015, 276,000 people between the ages of 12 and 17 used a prescription opioid non-medically.

Making the Jump from Painkillers to Heroin

What’s worse, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that 1 out of 15 people who misuse prescription painkillers try heroin within the next 10 years. In fact, 80% of new heroin users started out abusing opioid medications.

  • In 2015, 21,000 American youth self-reported using heroin within the past year – 5000 were current users.
  • In a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid disorders, 94% said they switched to heroin from prescription painkillers because it was cheaper and easier to obtain.
Why Is the Opioid Abuse Risk Higher among Athletes?

One of the main reasons why athletes have an elevated risk of eventually misusing opioids is because of the unique culture within sports – “No Pain, No Gain”, for example. In other words, contact sports like football normalize violence, risk, and pain. Players are encouraged – and even expected – to “play through pain”.

This attitude may be why male athletes are at an even greater risk than females – testosterone-fueled machismo. Compared to their non-participating peers, male athletes are:

  • Twice as likely to be prescribed an opioid painkiller
  • Four times as likely to misuse painkillers

Researcher Philip Todd Veliz says sports’ unique subculture “may influence risky behavior both on and off the playing field. In other words, participants in contact sports learn to view their body as an instrument that can be easily gambled with, even if it would involve permanent damage.”

Parental Awareness and Involvement are KEY

None of this is meant to serve as an indictment of high school sports. On the contrary, successful teen intervention programs in Iceland have proven that teenagers involved in extracurricular activities have much lower rates of substance use.

But there are several things that parents of high school athletes should do to protect their children:

  • Understand that there is a real possibility of injury.
  • Realize that injuries result in pain that must be managed.
  • Always ask questions about any medications prescribed by your child’s doctor.
  • Discuss alternatives to opioid painkillers.
  • If opioids MUST be prescribed, insist on the lowest dose possible for the shortest duration possible.
  • Look into other pain management and physical therapy options.
  • Do not let your teenager rush through their healing/treatment process too soon.
  • Carefully monitor that your teen is taking their medication exactly as prescribed.
  • Promptly and properly dispose of any unused medication.
  • Never share your medications with your child.
  • Talk with your children about the dangers of substance use.
  • Watch out for any signs of opioid abuse or addiction.

If your teenager is experimenting with or abusing opioids or any other substance, the expert staff at Teensavers Treatment Centers can help. For over 35 years, Teensavers has been the go-to resource for parents of teens with substance abuse or emotional issues.

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