These days it is common to hear about professional athletes getting caught up abusing pain pills. At the start of the 2014 season, 29 NFL players were suspended for drug use. In 20 of those cases, the drugs were controlled substances. The other nine were for performance enhancing drugs.
Some athletes will do whatever is necessary to stay on the field, and painkillers are becoming more widely used to treat sports injuries. Unfortunately, while pain pills might work in the short run by allowing athletes to play again quickly, some can also be highly addictive and lead to much bigger problems than the original injury.
In a landmark lawsuit, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and dozens of other players testified that the NFL gave them narcotics and other painkillers that led to addiction and other long-term medical complications. According to McMahon, he became addicted to painkillers, downing more than 100 Percocet pills per month.
While I do think that trainers, doctors, coaches and players need more education about the long-term effects of painkillers, what we are seeing in the NFL may not have necessarily started in the NFL.
I am a registered nurse and have provided care to a number of patients who have been addicted to pain medication. No matter their age, I have found that many people who are hooked on controlled substances began taking drugs after initially receiving a prescription from their doctor. Strong pain pills have become commonplace for athletes in physical rehabilitation.
As children get involved with sports at an earlier age, pain and injuries come earlier too. Young athletes with injuries who undergo surgery are often given prescription narcotics to help them recover. Yet research has shown that all it takes is one exposure to wire a young person’s mind to think strong drugs are the cure for all physical injuries.
When young people are exposed to the effects of strong painkillers, it can create a tendency to want to keep going back for more. When those drugs become too expensive, cheaper options like heroin are available. As a parent, when your child is hurt, you just want him or her to feel better fast. But we must educate ourselves and our children that painkillers are meant to manage pain, not prevent it. Parents have to start talking about pills as part of a larger conversation about addiction. If the time comes to take prescription painkillers, you as the parent should be in control of the bottle and the dosage.
Sometimes pain pills are needed just after surgery but can soon be replaced with a milder, over-the-counter medication, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Also remember that pain pills are not the only option. Talk to your child’s doctor or trainer about the many ways to control pain including physical therapy, relaxation techniques and proper rest.
Admittedly, this topic sits at the intersection of my life’s passions: health care and professional sports. I know there is no magic bullet or a one-size-fits-all cure for addiction—in athletes or anyone else. But I also know that reducing the number of substance abuse cases is possible. It’s going to require athletes, trainers and medical professionals to work together toward a plan for monitoring and controlling how and when young people are exposed to medications that could have life-altering effects.