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Addiction to Painkillers a Dirty Secret in Professional Sports

12/30/10 12:00 AM

The aggressive nature of contact sports takes its toll on the body, leaving many players to cope with chronic aches and pains. In order to manage sports related injuries, the use of painkillers such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet has become more common. Financially, there is a lot riding on sporting events, and one injury can ruin a person’s career. Even in the midst of dealing with serious injuries, professional athletes are feeling the pressure to perform.

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Prescription narcotics are part of the opioid family, which includes drugs like morphine, codeine, and heroin. They work by preventing pain messages in the nervous system from reaching the brain. Similar to other drugs, they also produce a “high,” which is one of the reasons they are often abused. Athletes can build up a tolerance to the drugs, leaving them wanting more to produce the desired effect.

While many colleges don’t tolerate illicit drugs such as marijuana or performance enhancing drugs such as steroids, they often overlook the potential dangers of prescription painkillers. This type of pill addiction can lead to dependency and crime and can be a gateway for other drugs. Worse, it can result in overdose and death.

The NCAA does conduct periodic surveys of college athletes in a variety of sports to monitor drug use among players. They ask about all sorts of drugs, except for prescription painkillers. Because prescription narcotics are not banned, they don’t ask about them at all.

A real problem at college campuses across the U.S. is not only the use of prescription narcotics to numb pain, but how the students are getting the medications. A study of volleyball players in Salt Lake City, Utah conducted by sports medicine doctors revealed that many who were popping pills got them from sources other than doctors – most likely from friends, on the street, or online. In fact, the study showed that as many as 61 percent were getting their prescription meds without the assistance of a physician.

The NFL also has many players and retirees talking about their addictions. In 1996, Brett Favre, then quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, sought help for his addiction to Vicotin. Randy Grimes, former lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also came forward in 2009 to talk about his addiction to prescription pain medication.

Before seeking treatment, Grimes was popping upwards of 30 pills a day. Many of these players’ illnesses were not properly dealt with at the time they were incurred, leaving those like Grimes to cope with painkiller addictions that caused even worse problems in the long run. Now the NFL is denying any claims to medical or behavioral assistance.

As long as the love of sports continues to remain a favorite American pastime, the safety and health of the players continues to be a community liability. Other alternatives to pain management need to be explored so that our beloved sports icons aren’t left struggling with addictions after the game is over.

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