The New Risk for High School Athletes: Prescription Painkillers

High schoolers today seem to have more stress than they did in years past – from acing the SATs to keeping up with the latest trends – what happens in high school can feel like life or death. Teenagers lack the long-term perspective to see that many of these concerns aren’t the mountains they believe them to be. Athletics always provided a path for students to help them maintain their sanity through these challenging years. Sports also kept students motivated and ensured they were too busy to get into trouble with drugs.

Unfortunately, that scenario has changed.

The Changing Demographic of the High School Addict

Nationally, the epidemic of addiction – particularly addiction to painkillers – has been making the headlines. One surprising demographic in this equation is high school athletes. The cultural image of teens dressed in black, locking themselves in their rooms to do drugs has prevented many people from realizing how at risk other high schoolers can be for addiction, particularly those involved in sports.

Most of the time, this tragedy begins due to an injury. According to research by USA Today, of the 7.5 million students playing high school sports, about a quarter of them suffer an injury every year. Of course, that’s just the number of students who admit to an injury – many play through, unwilling to admit being hurt, because they want to stay in the game, which worsens any injuries.

In the equation of why high school athletes become addicts, our cultural perspective of sports must be included. Coaches applaud kids who “tough it out” or “take one for the team,” and teens need that voice of encouragement. To hear it, they may play at any cost. If that means taking a pill to keep up, most will.

The Journey of the High School Athlete Addict

Parents and health care professionals are trying to serve the best interests of injured kids who are in serious pain. Prescription opioid medications do relieve the pain, but they also mask its severity. The athlete, who wants to keep playing the game, takes more pills to keep up. Already susceptible to addiction because of youth and the relief pain pills may have offered from previous injuries, the athlete is often powerless against becoming addicted.

Sometimes, it leads to an overdose of prescription painkillers. When those are unavailable, however, users need something to help with withdrawal from painkillers. Partly due to the stigma of addiction and partly due to fear of repercussions from parents, coaches, and the law, kids keep quiet and look for another source of relief. Often that relief is from heroin, which is cheaper and even easier to find. Teen athletes are following this path not as a means to get high, but simply as a way to recover from sports injuries.

The Tragic Story of One Athlete’s Addiction

Consider the life of promising high school athlete Cameron Weiss. From the time he was 5, he was involved in sports. He broke his collarbone playing football, and the doctor prescribed Percocet, an opioid painkiller. After his recovery, he returned to sports and broke his other collarbone, this time while wrestling. Though he was already suffering from extremely painful injuries, the wrestling brought on cauliflower ear – a painful condition where veins burst throughout the ear. His doctor would lance them daily, giving him more painkillers to withstand that agonizing event.

Throughout this, his mother had no idea of the danger from the constant supply of painkillers. By the time his supply of pain medication ran out, he was addicted. Without a means to secure more, Weiss turned to heroin.

Weiss – like other addicts to prescriptions – knew exactly how much to take to relieve his pain and get his fix. As an illegal substance, there is no way to know the purity of heroin or what other drugs it might contain. Weiss, at 18-years-old, shot up with heroin, overdosed, and died.

High School Athletics and a National Epidemic

According to the most recent research, 77% of high school students who use heroin have also used prescription painkillers. There are no hard numbers about whether the pills or heroin came first, but teens tend to experiment with pills first, which leads to addiction, and in many cases, heroin use. This isn’t a new story. In fact, about a decade ago, Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Jack Riley began to notice that high school students were becoming “unwitting customers of cartels.” Since then, the number of high school athletes who have become addicted to painkillers has risen sharply.

A seven-month-long investigation by Sports Illustrated last year exposed that overdose victims weren’t just in high contact sports like football. Baseball, golf, basketball, hockey, gymnastics, swimming, tennis – high school athletics across the board, from coast to coast, were filled with student addicts. High school athletes are extremely vulnerable to addiction. Cartels, through street gangs, have capitalized on this and often target these kids. Access to pills and smack are ubiquitous and easy to find.

Finding Solutions for a Contemporary Tragedy

Easy answers are hard to come by. Students, eager to keep playing the sports they love and unaware of the long-term consequences of pills, aren’t capable on their own of deciding against taking pills for relief. Parents, who are excited to see their kids play sports and want to encourage their drive, are likely unaware of the dangers of prescription painkillers. Because health care professionals provide these painkillers, it can be difficult to see opioid medications as the slippery path to addiction that they can be.

Teen athletic addiction is getting some attention, but for some parents and teens, it came too late. Understanding that, for this demographic, addiction isn’t about chasing a high is crucial to creating a proper treatment plan and a path to recovery. Pain management without opioids may be the first line of defense against a reliance on drugs. Parents, health care professionals, and coaches should educate themselves to be part of the answer.

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