There’s been a lot of talk about athletes using drugs in the last decade. Still, most of the attention has been either to steroids and other performance enhancing drugs or to illegal drug use, the kind that has cost some players their careers (Ricky Williams anyone?). But how many people know that prescription medication abuse is a huge problem among athletes long into their retirement?
A recent study using phone interviews with 644 retired NFL players has revealed that the 7% o them are currently abusing prescription opiates (pain killers like oxycontin). This rate is a full 3 times greater than in the general population!!! When it comes to lifetime abuse, the NFL players were also 3 times more likely to abuse these drugs during their career than the rest of the population is during their lifetime!
Some of this is obvious, NFL players are likely to cause some serious abuse to their bodies (their reporting of moderate to severe pain was also 3 times greater than the general population) and opiate medications are very good at taking away the pain. Indeed, the players who used these drugs during their careers reported more injuries overall as well as more career ending injuries. Still, I was surprised to find that more than half of the players who began using prescription opiates during their NFL career got at least a portion of their pills from illicit sources. I would have imagined that professional athletes would have no problem getting prescription pain killers from doctors but apparently, many of them also used teammates, coaches, and trainers (less shocking) as their sources. Not surprisingly, retired NFL players who drink heavily or who reported misusing prescription drugs during their playing career were 2-3 times more likely to be misusing, or abusing, prescription opiates now. That finding supports past notions about the association between abuse of one drug (like alcohol) and abuse of others and about the good ol’ finding that past behavior is one of the best predictors of future behavior. Still, there were other important factors including undiagnosed concussions, severe playing pain, and mental impairment, which all contributed further to the likelihood that ex-players would be abusing prescription opiates currently.
Since prescription abuse is one of the leading causes of accidental death in the U.S. and high doses of prescription opiates specifically have been reported to increase the risk of overdose greatly even among people who are taking them regularly (like V.A. patients), it seems there should be at least some focus dedicated to prescription drug use and abuse among athletes, including retired athletes, in order to reduce the risk of death in this population. For all my searching I couldn’t find a good estimate of the current rate of overdose death among athletes so maybe we should start there.
I’m pretty sure that if we look, we’ll find similar patterns among athletes from sports other than football and that there is something more we can do to reduce the abuse of these drugs. I have absolutely no problem with people using opiate pain kills for pain, I just think we need to do whatever we can to cut the overdose risk so that we don’t lose more than 20,000 people to this stuff every year…
Linda B. Cottler, Arbi Ben Abdallah, Simone M. Cummings, John Barr, Rayna Banks, Ronnie Forchheimer (2011). Injury, pain, and prescription opioid use among former National Football League (NFL) players. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 116, 188-194.