Treating Opioid Use Disorder in Athletes

A seemingly forgotten segment of the population affected by opioid addiction is, ironically, some of the most celebrated and decorated people in the spotlight: athletes. From professional wrestlers doing elaborate stunts on TV to the Olympic athletes that train their whole lives for a chance to win a medal, they are all putting their bodies through rigorous extremes. With athletic extremes of any kind comes the risk of injury and chronic pain. Because athletes in their prime must make the most of their lifelong training to achieve their goals, many are pushed to the limits and beyond, sometimes depending on cocktails of prescription-strength anti-inflammatory and pain medications in order to perform.

Many professional athletes have opened up about their struggles with opioid addiction, usually post-retirement as to avoid scrutiny and shame. However, many people tend to shrug off the woes of the rich and famous, especially when it comes to addiction. Still, tons of collegiate and lesser-known competitive athletes may not be household names, but they are potentially struggling with opioid misuse due to the pressures of their careers, particularly when it is their primary source of income.

Risk, Treatment, and Prevention

Treating athletes for substance use disorder is little talked about, but it could help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction. If these upstanding, physical specimens struggle with drugs, it shows that addiction isn’t just something that happens to “bad people who make poor choices.”  

Statistically, competitive athletes are at a higher risk of opioid use disorder due to the heightened instance of injury requiring pain management. While a chemical dependency is likely to occur when opioid painkillers are used for an extended period of time, the misuse factor is likely driven by other factors. Athletes tend to deal with enormous psychological pressure along with the tumultuous ups and downs of winning and losing competitions. Without proper coping mechanisms, some seek out sedative or euphoric highs or opioids to escape their often highly regimented and rigorous daily routines.

Medication-assisted treatment is an invaluable asset for competitive athletes who may be struggling with opioid misuse because it allows them to treat their addiction without having to alter their disciplined lives to attend residential rehab completely. MAT also includes substance use counseling, which can help athlete patients seek further, more specialized mental health assistance to deal with any co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and other common diagnoses that go hand-in-hand with substance use disorder.

As always, prevention is the best way to help athletes avoid the pitfalls of their increased risk of opioid addiction, especially for those in youth sports. Heightened awareness about which athletics are most injury-prone and additional pain management methods are only the start. Now that medicine is looking to move further away from using opioids for anything but extreme acute pain, it seems there may be even more options for athletes and non-athletes alike in the not-so-distant future. 

Many come to Middlesex Recovery offices to seek help with their substance misuse due to the convenience of outpatient care and complete confidentiality from specialized medical providers. A future free of opioid addiction could be one message or call away, so reach out today.