Prescription Painkillers

Athletes and Prescription Pills: The Drug Crisis Impacting America

July 12th, 2018
Athletes and Prescription Pills: The Drug Crisis Impacting America

Substance abuse is nothing new across college campuses, as students have been more frequently exposed to alcohol, marijuana, and narcotics within the past several decades.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) shines a light on just how prominent this phenomenon is for student athletes in particular, sharing the alarming statistic that twenty percent of male student athletes admit to having ten or more drinks in a single outing. A more recent but equally serious problem is the rising opioid epidemic within the last decade.

A major factor contributing to this crisis is the rate at which painkillers are being prescribed. The number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers jumped from 76 million to approximately 207 million between 1991 and 2013. According to TimesUnion, a startling half-million people have died since 2000 as a result of misusing painkillers. This issue especially impacts those who play sports. Data shows that 52 percent of NFL players were exposed to opioids, with 71 percent admitting to misuse. Painkillers have had a negative impact not only on professional athletes but those in college and even in high school, when students face the added pressure of maintaining their grades and expanding their social circles. There are multiple reasons student athletes may turn to drugs, including using them to improve their athletic performance, to cope with academic and social pressures, or to help treat injuries.

Most do not turn to drugs out of the simple desire to impress others, but instead become unintentionally addicted after being introduced to these prescription drugs after sustaining painful injuries. Some student athletes admit to relying on their medications to continue playing sports and avoid having to sit on the bench, even though their injuries may not have fully healed. TimesUnion quotes Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who declares, "Athletes' love of the game can make it particularly difficult to stop playing when they suffer an injury…Coaches and other educators play a unique role in young people's lives and must teach them about the dangers of misusing pain medication, either to get a 'high' or to get back on the field before an injury is fully healed. Both can have lasting consequences."

For those seeking a short-term solution to dull pain caused by strenuous physical activity, OxyContin, Vicodin, and other prescription opioids can bring pain relief as well as stress relief and even euphoria. Using prescribed drugs can be a slippery slope for some athletes, as they become more dependent on these painkillers to deal with physical or psychological trauma. Users who turn to these drugs for non-medical reasons are more at risk of developing addiction, but as the above statistics suggest, even those using drugs for their medical benefits can find themselves in trouble.

CBS News interviewed one of many young athletes facing addiction because of similar circumstances. Robert King, a high school wrestler, became addicted to heroin after taking Percocet to numb the pain of a broken foot. King turned to heroin after several years of using pain medication, realizing heroin was a less expensive option. King’s story is not uncommon in the world of high school and college athletics. Craig points to a report from the American Journal of Public Health, which discovered that teenage athletes are 50 percent more at-risk of misusing prescription drugs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention similarly found that heroin usage has doubled for those 18 to 25 years old over the last ten years. The fact that Poison Control Centers reportedly receive a phone call once every forty-five minutes related to pediatric opioid usage is even more troubling.

Although these statistics about addictions facing young people are troubling, there is hope that those troubled by addiction can change their mindset and become less reliant on harmful substances. In King’s case, he continues to attend a rehab program in New York to combat his physical and psychological struggles. About one-fourth of the clients there are athletes who were drawn to the temporary pain relief brought about by these medications. There are multiple options, however, for student athletes who plan to either manage or entirely avoid developing an opioid addiction.

How Student Athletes Can Avoid and Treat Drug Addiction

1. Have discussions with parents, teachers, coaches, and others invested in the athlete’s well-being about managing expectations. At the end of the day, sports are games, and not worth risking serious injuries that could indirectly lead to a reliance on prescription pills. Student athletes should give their best effort, but avoid dangerously exceeding their physical limits.

2. The young athlete and their doctor should look into prescription treatment options only if a problem still persists after addressing an injury with rest, ice, and alternate medical techniques recommended by a physician.

3. Athletes already suffering from addiction can attend therapy as a source of comfort and healing. Inpatient and outpatient programs, as well as 12 Step programs, are available as treatment options. These options build a strong support system for those faced with addiction and promote self-discovery.

4. Holistic practices, including the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture, can be used to support traditional addiction treatment. Methods of relaxation such as massage therapy and yoga can also relieve physical symptoms and promote mindfulness in those suffering from addiction.


Because of a growing awareness of this issue, new efforts are being made in several states, to discuss the dangers of prescription drugs. In states like New York, addressing this problem includes providing coaches and teachers with the materials necessary to educate the nation’s youth about the possibly deadly consequences of opioid usage. These materials include fact sheets about prescribed drugs, resources for prevention and treatment services, and presentations about the opioid and heroin epidemic. If student athletes can be proactive in their own healing through conversations with educators at school and at home, or through alternate methods, they can focus more on their general well-being and look forward to a more hopeful, opioid-free future. 


If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction, we are here to help. Reach out to Mountainside by calling 888 833 4676.