Prescription opioid misuse: What you need to know to protect athletes

Prescription opioid misuse: What you need to know to protect athletes


As the opioid epidemic rages on nationwide, young athletes – who are more likely than their peers to suffer injuries that may result in opioid prescriptions – continue to be at risk for developing dangerous addictions that pose serious health problems, and can even lead to death.   

More than 750,000 youth ages 12 to 17 misused prescription opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, in the U.S. in 2017.

To help prevent opioid misuse and dependence among young athletes, the Philadelphia-based Research & Evaluation Group (REG) at Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) has created a free Student Athlete Injury Toolkit. The Toolkit is geared toward student athletes, their parents/guardians, and coaches, to help them learn about injury prevention, treatment and recovery, as well as the signs to recognize and avoid opioid misuse and dependence after injuries.

We spoke with the Toolkit development team about what coaches and youth sports leaders can do to encourage healthy injury recovery and help prevent young athletes from misusing prescriptions.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: How prevalent is opioid misuse among young athletes ages 16 and under?

PUBLIC HEALTH MANAGEMENT CORPORATION: According to a survey of 1,000 young athletes in 2014, a staggering 90% of student athletes reported some type of sports-related injury. Due to their increased likelihood of being injured, youth who participate in interscholastic sports may be particularly vulnerable to engaging in opioid misuse or developing an opioid use disorder.

In one study, researchers found that adolescent males who participated in organized sports had higher odds of being prescribed an opioid medication during the past year, as well as higher odds of medical and non-medical misuse of opioid medication, compared to those who did not participate in sports.

SKL: Is this problem on the rise?

PHMC: Although recent data shows a promising decline in the prevalence of prescription opioid misuse among high school seniors, young athletes are still more vulnerable to misusing opioids and developing an opioid use disorder than their non-athlete peers. Educating young athletes and their coaches about the risks of opioid use can help eradicate the problem.

SKL: What role can and should volunteer coaches play regarding this issue?

PHMC: Coaches can provide critical support to an injured athlete during their recovery and help prevent opioid misuse. Coaches can promote safe injury healing by helping young athletes follow through on recommendations for their treatment and rehabilitation, encouraging them to take as much time off as they need, and working with the athlete and athletic trainer to create a “return to play” plan. Coaches can also support the mental health of their players by encouraging them to speak to their school counselor or a mental health professional about how they feel about the injury, and helping them stay involved with their team and teammates while they recover, like going to practices and fundraisers.

SKL: Why is this toolkit a good resource for coaches?

PHMC: The Student Athlete Injury Toolkit includes a Tips for Coaches fact sheet to help coaches learn about prescription opioid misuse and how they can play a proactive role in preventing opioid misuse among their athletes. This short fact sheet gives tips to prevent injuries, talk about responsible pain management with players and prevent opioid misuse, support injured athletes during injury recovery, and recognize signs of opioid misuse.

SKL: From all the research you’ve done in this area, what is most important for volunteer coaches or parents of young athletes to know?

PHMC: Student athletes may feel pressured to play through injuries, and coaches may add to this pressure (intentionally or not). Student athletes may feel like their coaches and teammates are counting on them, which motivates them to get back in the game as soon as possible, even if their injury has not fully healed. These pressures or motivations may encourage student athletes to take prescription opioids differently than prescribed, or to get them from someone else, to mask their pain and return to playing faster. Help athletes approach the healing process patiently and responsibly. Athletes should understand that playing while masking pain with medication can have severe consequences on their bodies and minds.

SKL: If you had a minute to speak to a group of volunteer coaches of youth sports about the issue of opioid misuse, what’s the message you would share with them?

PHMC: Student athletes are more likely to be exposed to and misuse prescription opioid pain relievers because they are more likely to get injured than their peers. Knowing the facts about opioids and their risks can help coaches reduce unnecessary exposure to prescription opioids and prevent their misuse by student athletes. Coaches can be powerful allies in supporting student athletes to safely heal from their injuries and avoid the dangers of misusing opioids.

Opioids Health Safety Addiction Injury Recovery Coaching Parenting

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