Playing sports at any age can lead to injuries, and that is especially true of football, basketball and even baseball. When adult athletes get injured, they are often prescribed opioid pain killers to get them by – often with devastating effects.
But what about when student athletes suffer injuries? It turns out that many of them, too, are prescribed habit-forming opioids, forming an addiction that can turn out to be worse (and far more lasting) than the original injury.
As the Today show reported on its website, John Haskell, as a high school football player, was used to physical contact. However, being diagnosed with his fourth concussion became a real game-changer for him; his doctor prescribed a very powerful painkiller for his throbbing headaches.
“He looked in my ears, checked my hearing, checked my eyes. And the next thing I know, I’m at CVS getting Vicodin,” the teenager told the show’s correspondents in an interview.
Addict at 15
Just 15 years old at the time, Haskell became a member of a different club: Student athletes who become addicted to dangerous opioids, sometimes moving on to even more dangerous street drugs, after they get hurt playing a sport.
Over the course of time, the youngster developed an addiction to pain pills, and then heroin – which was less expensive. Now at 18 years old, he’s sober and is doing very well. But health experts say his experience ought to be a warning both to parents and the medical industry, as well as for other injured players.
“As a parent, you need to take a more advocating role and ask your provider why are they going this route?” said Dr. Harold Shinitzky, a sports psychologist. “Why is it automatically an opioid or a painkiller?”
Interestingly, as reported by Health Day, a study released in July found that teen athletes are less likely to abuse prescription opioids than are kids who are not involved in school sports and don’t exercise.
That finding doesn’t appear to jibe with the understanding held by many in the mainstream medical community who have been concerned about the rising instances of opioid addiction among teen athletes. Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, said he was “surprised” by that finding.
“A key risk (for teenage athletes) is a desire to please and for acceptance,” he said, as Health Day reported. “But this study shows overall rates (of use) are declining.”
Anecdotal evidence that some teens become addicts
University of Michigan researchers, for that particular study, analyzed data from nearly 192,000 students in the 8th and 10th grades who took part in a federally funded study from 1997 to 2014. Over those years, doctors handed out many more opioid prescriptions for children and teenagers, while non-medical use of opioids also increased sharply. At about the same time, deaths from overdoses involving opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and heroin almost quadrupled in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The study’s results suggest that participation in organized team sports may actually serve as a bulwark against opioid abuse and addiction, according to study co-author Philip Veliz, with the university’s Institute for Social Research.
The website noted that the study’s findings “run counter” to other research that has been conducted and published in recent years.
Veliz also suggested that there is anecdotal evidence that prescribing opioids to teenagers following a sports injury could lead some of them to become heroin addicts (as evidenced by what happened to Haskell – again, because it is easier and cheaper for them to obtain).
But, he added, there have been no large-scale studies that have measured whether abuse of recommended painkillers is in turn leading to an “epidemic” of heroin use among high school athletes.