At their core, sports are supposed to be fun and fulfilling, win or lose. Look no further than this summer’s Olympics in Rio, where there will be no shortage of feel-good stories and dramatic medal wins.
There is also a growing dark side to sports culture, however, and it goes well beyond the pain one might feel following an excruciating loss. It is related to pain, however: Opioids, or synthetic drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin or fentanyl, which are commonly prescribed to athletes to help treat sports injuries.
Opioids are highly addictive, and they can lead to dependence on street-level heroin, which can be easier to obtain.
Here is a look at the sports and opioid epidemic, and what is being done to curb the issue.
What Opioids Do
In theory, opioids are a good thing. Put simply, they’re painkillers used to treat chronic pain or pain associated with injuries in sports or accidents.
The good that opioids can do comes with plenty of potential bad, however. For example, when the drug OxyContin was released about 20 years ago, the major selling point was that one tablet would relieve pain for 12 hours, making for “smooth and sustained pain control all day and all night.”
The problem with that is it doesn’t work for 12 hours at a time for everyone, particularly those who have used the drug for an extended period. That, coupled with the fact that the drug is highly addictive, makes for a perfect storm that can lead an athlete to bigger problems than just an injury.
The numbers tell the story. There were 47,055 deadly drug overdoses in 2014, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The organization says opioid addiction drove the epidemic with nearly 19,000 deaths related to prescription painkiller overdoses, and another 10,574 related to heroin.
What Opioids Often Lead To
You may be asking, “How are heroin deaths relevant when it comes to sports injuries?” After all, when many people think of heroin, they may relate it to rock stars or street junkies seen on “The Wire.”
The answer is, legal prescription opioid painkillers are a lot closer to street-level heroin addiction than you might think.
Just think about it. If an injured athlete is prescribed a drug such as OxyContin or Percocet, the doctor will only prescribe a limited supply to ease the pain while the athlete recovers. That’s where the addictive nature of opioids becomes particularly dangerous.
Many injured athletes, from professionals all the way down to the high school level, have become so dependent on prescription opioids that it caused them to find relief in heroin. Buying heroin on the streets can be much cheaper than brand name prescription drugs, and you also don’t need health insurance or a doctor’s signature to obtain it.
Times have certainly changed in regards to who uses heroin. In the 1960s, nearly 83 percent of heroin users were young men living in urban areas, according to data from the DEA, and detailed in this graphic by JourneyPure At The River.
Now, 75 percent of heroin users were introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, and it’s both men and women living in suburban areas.
What Is Being Done
There is still much work to be done to overcome the current opioid epidemic, but there are steps being taken. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised doctors to use more caution when prescribing highly addictive painkillers such as opioids.
It’s just a first step, and doctors are not punished if they don’t comply, but CDC director Tom Frieden has said he hopes the effort sparks a culture change among doctors and patients.
Opioids have helped plenty of people overcome chronic pain and sports injuries, leading to healthier overall lives. However, there have also been way too many that have experienced opioids as a gateway to potentially dangerous heroin use.
The recent steps taken may just be the beginning, but they’ve at least sparked national conversation about the safety of opioids for sports injuries.