When you suffered a scrape as a kid, how did your mom or dad treat the wound? A band-aid, hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate where the skin broke, and a pat on the back often did the trick. If you suffered something worse, like a broken arm or a sprained shoulder, a trip to the doctor’s office often meant an arm in a sling or cast for a few weeks or months.

However, as people get older, their injuries often become more serious, especially for athletes. They’re bigger and stronger, run faster and hit objects or other people harder. The more competitive people become in sports, the more likely they are to seek medical treatment for minor injuries in addition to major ones as a precaution.

The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people regarding the link between substance use and high school and college athletics. Some of the most interesting topics surrounding this survey include whether or not student athletes are more likely to misuse drugs or alcohol, the benefit of playing sports for a student’s mental health, the reasons student athletes misused substances and the prevalence of prescription drugs within the culture of competitive sports.

As a part of the rise of prescription opioids, pain-relief medications have become more common in the United States. Taking these drugs consistently can increase the likelihood of building a dependence for opioids and resorting to cheaper street drugs such as heroin to achieve the desired effects. Other consequences of relying on prescription drugs include severe injury, or even death, and many of these substances are to be taken strictly as ordered by a doctor due to their addictive potential.

Are competitive athletes, due to the likelihood they suffer an injury, more vulnerable than those who do not play sports to become addicted to prescription medications? How does prescription drug use among student athletes differ from era to era?

‘Prescription Nation’ on the Playing Field

The National Safety Council released a report titled “Prescription Nation 2018” that reveals the United States’ opioid epidemic is worsening. In 2016, more than 42,000 people died due to opioid-related overdoses. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 11.5 million people misused prescription opioids in 2017 and 2.1 million of them were doing so for the first time.

The epidemic has not left college students unaffected. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports that in any given day there are 559 full-time college students who use prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. Around 12 percent of college students used at least one prescription drug not prescribed to them in the past year.

The Recovery Village’s survey results show that the growing problem has also affected student athletes, who are relying more now than ever before on prescription drugs to treat injuries. A University of Michigan study conducted in 2016 found that male athletes are twice as likely to be prescribed opioids and four times more likely to misuse the pills than nonathletes.

Only 15 percent of the current or former student athletes who participated in The Recovery Village’s survey said they used a prescription drug to deal with an injury during their playing days. That large of a majority steering clear of unnecessary medication is a positive sign, but the percentages differ when looking at specific age groups.

Of the respondents ages 55 and up, only 8 percent said they relied on a prescription medication for treatment when they were a student athlete in high school or college. The younger the age demographic, however, the more likely they were to have answered “yes.” Around 28 percent of survey participants ages 18-24 said they took a prescription drug to treat an injury.

The same disparities occurred when respondents were asked about the prescription drug use of their teammates. Around 38 percent of respondents said they did know at least one teammate or friend who used prescription medication when they were playing sports competitively. Respondents age 55 and older were down to 31.25 percent and respondents age 18-34 were up to 47.47 percent.

A Pill to Cure All Pain

Why are more student athletes than ever before accepting prescription medication to treat minor and major sports injuries?

An article in the Morning Call written by Dr. Nicholas Slenker states that younger athletes, such as those in high school and college, are at a higher risk of acute pain from injuries than students who did not participate in sports. Slenker cited an NCAA survey from 2016 which states that 23 percent of college athletes reported receiving a prescription for a pain-relief drug and 6 percent said they used an opioid medication without a prescription.

“In high school we see the same thing,” Slenker continued, “with several national studies showing that youth highly involved in competitive sports are at greater risk of being prescribed opioid medications, misusing opioid medications, and being approached to share these opioid medications.”

The prevalence for injuries is one factor, but that does not explain why today’s student athletes are more likely to take prescription drugs than student athletes from 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Blake Marshall wrote about the connection between sports injuries and prescription-drug addiction in the Daily Utah Chronicle, the independent student-run newspaper for the University of Utah. He detailed examples of athletes who suffer an injury, receive a prescription for Vicodin, Percocet or Oxycontin, and then rest as they mentally look forward to a return to the field. When another injury occurs, maybe even a minor one that doesn’t require any medication, athletes often remember the numbing sensation the drug provided, leading to misuse and a possible addiction.

“Before they know it, the athlete is hooked,” Marshall wrote, “and either the pills aren’t strong enough or they’re too expensive and they are shooting heroin into their veins just to stay normal.”

That grim look at how a student athlete can become addicted to harmful substances is all too common. Now more than ever before, athletes will go the quick-fix route for treating injuries in part because of the pressures to return to the field. The rise of prescription medication, much more accessible and with more options now than decades ago, presents an opportunity to avoid missing playing time or losing a spot on the team.

“Athletes will do anything to stay in the game, and that includes loading up on painkillers before or after training in order to numb that nagging injury,” Marshall wrote. “This is a scene that happens all the time, at all levels of sports. Athletes will do anything to stay in the game, and that includes loading up on painkillers before or after training in order to numb that nagging injury. Athletes choose this path for different reasons. It could be a chronic injury or a recent surgery, but when playing time is at stake and the ability to move into a starting role, gain a college scholarship or even when the professional ranks come calling, many athletes will go to any length to stay in the game.”

Pain-Relief Alternatives

With so many student athletes reliant on scholarships tied to their on-the-field value — adding to the notion that their value as people is defined by their athletic talents — finding the fastest solution to the short-term problem of not being able to play seems like common sense.

Having that mentality can be dangerous. Student athletes who rely consistently on prescription drugs to ease pain from injuries, or even chronic pain from multiple injuries or surgeries to the same area of the body, are susceptible to growing a tolerance and building a dependence on those substances. The more a person takes pain-relief prescription opioids, the more likely they are to become addicted to that drug and pursue a cheaper alternative, such as heroin.

However, pain-relief alternatives exist for people who want to avoid prescription opioids. The most common and effective pain-relief activities include:

  • Meditation and yoga
  • Different forms of therapy, including massage or relaxation
  • Taking vitamins and supplements
  • Light exercise
  • Acupuncture

Student athletes often do not think of the long-term health risks that come from taking prescription drugs. Additionally, many people are unaware of alternatives to relieve pain. As more people misuse prescription drugs in the United States, understanding the dangers and knowing about all options could prevent someone from becoming addicted and negatively impacting their future, both as an athlete and a student, and beyond.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.