american football player from the waist down holding helmet at his side.

One of the advantages that has come out of the opioid addiction epidemic is the clear message that this type of drug can affect anyone. An addiction to opioids can develop because of the medical field’s standard practice to prescribe opioids for pain, not knowing the signs of addiction, or the relief of emotional stress that opioids facilitates in someone who feels overwhelmed.

As former NFL player Jeff Hatch recently commented:

A lot of times people put a face on who they think suffers from this problem and this disease, and one of the goals I have is I want people to understand that it really does cross all classes, all races and all faces.

Hatch’s Story

On May 15, 2017 Former NFL player Jeff Hatch participated in a panel led by New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen. The event took place at Portsmouth High School with an audience filled with attentive student-athletes listening carefully to Hatch’s words. The student athletes had a lot to learn from Hatch, given that they are vulnerable to experiencing an injury and possibly putting themselves at risk for opiate misuse or abuse.

This is precisely what happened to Jeff Hatch. In fact, his experience with opiate misuse began with drinking in high school. He explained that he felt a sense of belonging when he drank alcohol. He also highlighted the pressure he felt to do well academically, athletically, and socially while in school. This sort of pressure only intensified when he went to college. When he suffered an injury while playing college football, Hatch explained that he took a couple of extra pain pills to help numb his emotional pain too.

I remember getting that bottle of pills and on that bottle it said you take one to two every four to six hours as needed for pain. And I remembered my experience with other drugs and realized that amount would cure my physical pain, a few more would kill the emotional pain.

Athletes are Vulnerable to Opioid Addiction

The common road to a prescription pain pill addiction begins with an injury. When a person is prescribed pain medication, they are vulnerable to the addictive quality of the medication they’ve been provided. Today, more and more people understand the risks of not following the directions as prescribed. However, up until just a few years ago, many people might have thought, “well, what’s the harm in taking a few more pills?” As in Hatch’s case, this line of thinking might have been encouraged if someone was also experiencing emotional pain or stress. This is exactly why sports athletes are vulnerable.

In fact, research points to just how vulnerable athletes are. A study at the University of Michigan found:

  • Male athletes used and misused opioid medications more often than males who did not participate in sports.
  • Male teens who participated in organized sports had 1.86 times higher odds of being prescribed an opioid medication, 10.5 times higher odds of taking too much of their prescribed opioid medication, and 4 times higher odds of using their prescribed medication to get high compared with male teens who were not athletes.
  • There was no association between male teen participation in sports and the non-medical use of opioids.
  • Female athletes were less likely to be prescribed opioids or misuse them.

Good News for Teen AthletesOpioid Abuse | Waismann Method

However, another more recent study shows good news for younger athletes. A study administered in July of 2016 shows that adolescents who play in sports are actually less likely to abuse or misuse prescription pain medication. It turns out that playing in sports or exercising regularly  are considered to be protective factors. In fact, these protective factors help against the use of the illegal drug heroin as well.

Still, it’s important that teen athletes understand that this can be a potential problem and that experiencing an injury is often the beginning. For this reason, the event at Portsmouth High School was necessary. Trevor Van Allen, a student at Portsmouth High School, commented about the event:

This was very informative, and the athletes here know what’s going on in this community. As athletes, we need to be leaders in our school and our community, so this was useful to help explain how this problem can spiral out of hand for anyone.

How Athletes Can Avoid Addiction

In addition to possible addiction, some research points to the fact that long-term use of opioids actually leads to more pain. However, this issue continues to be argued by top experts in the field, debating both sides of the issue. For now, some doctors and other medical professionals are looking to new ways to manage pain.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, some alternatives to managing pain are listed below. However, keep in mind that each injury and body is different, and these methods may not work for everyone.

  • relaxation techniques
  • massage
  • hypnosis
  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • music
  • mindfulness
  • medication
  • qi gong
  • acupuncture
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • spinal manipulation
  • herbal products (white willow bark, lavender, etc.)
  • prolotherapy
  • dietary supplements
  • biofeedback
  • homeopathy
  • reiki
  • static magnets

The above is a summary of methods used for a variety of types of pain. Depending on whether your pain arises from an injury or illness or for another reason, the method chosen by you or your doctor may vary.  Of course, these methods can be used not only by athletes, but by anyone who experiences pain.

Remember that if you realize you are developing an opioid addiction, there could be great harm in attempting to manage it on your own. Jeff Hatch points out: it’s not the drug that becomes problematic; it’s the addiction. There are better ways to heal the addiction so that it doesn’t take over your life. Once you’re no longer facing an addiction, you can learn to manage pain in ways that a healthier and easier on your body.