5 Things About Opioid Abuse Among Athletes


The Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall occurred today at the Rutgers Athletic Center, which highlighted the impact of the opioid epidemic nationwide and its increased risk among athletes.

Opioid addiction has led to thousands of deaths nationwide, with 68% of the United States’ 70,000 fatal overdoses occurring in 2017 being attributed to a prescription or illicit opioid. Recently, Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, agreed to a wide array of settlements totaling to nearly $3 billion over 7 years. Increased awareness about opioids has proved instrumental in assigning accountability to companies and distributors for their role in contributing to the opioid epidemic.

The fifth community event in the continuation of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey’s Knock Out Opioid Abuse Initiative, a 2-year initiative focusing on addressing the opioid epidemic through community outreach, prescriber education, parent education, and a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the crisis, was held at the Rutgers Athletic Center to relay the impact of the nationwide opioid epidemic, specifically on athletes.

Here are 5 things to know:

1. Student athletes are at a heightened risk for opioid misuse and abuse

In a recent study on youth participants in high-injury sports like football and wrestling, it was found that these athletes had approximately 50% higher odds of nonmedical use of opioids than people of the same age who did not participate in these sports (football: adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 1.50, 99% CI, 1.12-1.99; wrestling: AOR = 1.49; 99% CI, 1.01-2.19). Due to the rigorous demands of sports, male athletes were found to be twice as likely to be prescribed painkillers, and additionally 4 times as likely to misuse or abuse their prescriptions, noted panel discussion moderator Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

2. Limited insurance options for even professional athletes can drive them to opioids

Speaking during a panel discussion focusing on personal struggles with opioids, former Rutgers quarterback Ray Lucas, who also played in the NFL from 1996 to 2002, highlighted the significance of factors relating to injuries that initiated his use of opioids.

“In the NFL you get insurance for 5 years and then you’re on your own,” said Lucas. Since a neck injury Lucas obtained would have cost upwards of $400,000 in surgery, physicians instead began to prescribe him prescription medication. This escalation in prescription pill use would rise from 125 pills a month to 1400 pills during the height of his addiction.

3. Extensive injuries can cause athletes to seek out pain relief

The toll that high-injury sports like football have on athletes has created a constant cycle of playing, pain, and pain relief that has led athletes like Lucas and Brett Favre to abuse prescription medication. A recent admission from former NFL star wide receiver Calvin Johnson on his use of marijuana as a substitute for opioids stresses the need for pain relief among athletes, and additionally the availability of possible alternatives. Since successfully undergoing rehab, Lucas described how he has had “3 neck surgeries, and 13 knee surgeries since my opioid addiction, and every time after my surgery I did not take 1 pill. There are so many options for student-athletes that no one knows about,” said Lucas.

4. Steps are being taken for opioid control

Gurbir Grewal, JD, New Jersey Attorney General, expressed the steps currently being taken for opioid control in which prevention, treatment, and enforcement were 3 key elements. For prevention, he described the importance in continuing to spread awareness in athletic centers about opioid use while also stressing for athletes to not rush their recoveries. Operation Helping Hand was highlighted as a major driving force for treatment as well, in which law enforcement can play a larger role in opioid care. Grewal spoke about the extensive measures being taken for enforcement in which those responsible for contributing to the opioid crisis will be held accountable, which includes heroin mills, doctors who sell prescriptions, and opioid manufacturers.

5. Physicians are required by law in New Jersey to talk with patients about possible addictive qualities in drugs

Former New Jersey Attorney General John Jay Hoffman, now serving as general counsel at Rutgers University, said during the panel discussion that New Jersey was the first state to pass a law that required physicians and dentists to have conversations with patients about addictive qualities linked to prescribed drugs. This necessity opens the discussion for student athletes and all those who are prescribed these painkillers to understand the associated precautions.

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