Many student athletes are competing in sports year-round with little opportunity for rest and have a higher risk for injury. Young athletes may arrive at a doctor’s office with pain from a sports-related injury and are prescribed opioid painkillers. Although most young athletes take prescription medications as directed, studies show that approximately 20% of young people ages 12 to 17 have used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes.

Prescription painkillers can ease the pain of some athletic injuries but they do not help heal or eliminate the injury. Many athletes do not want to lose their competitive edge and try to play through their injuries. Prescription painkillers often mask the pain without treating the injury, increasing the need for more painkillers and increasing the risk of addiction.

Research suggests that young athletes in high-impact sports like football are at the highest risk for severe injury and are more likely to be prescribed painkillers. Young people involved in organized sports may be more likely to misuse opioid medications because of the increased risk for injury.

A 2014 study found that male student athletes were more likely to abuse opioid painkillers than their non-athlete peers, and a University of Michigan researcher concluded that by the time student-athletes are seniors, approximately 11% have abused prescription painkillers.

Young Athletes and Heroin

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that heroin use has more than doubled among 18-to 25-year-olds in the last decade. Both the Drug Enforcement Agency and CDC have noted that a growing number of young heroin users are current or former student athletes.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that one in 15 people who use prescription painkillers for nonmedical purposes will try heroin within 10 years. One reason that people transition from prescription painkillers to heroin is that heroin is a less expensive and more potent option for people dependent on opioid painkillers.

What Young Athletes, Coaches, and Parents Can Do

  • Ask your physician about milder pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • If opioid painkillers are needed, ask your physician to prescribe the lowest effective dose and don’t take the drugs longer than needed
  • Rest and let injuries heal, do not play through pain.
  • Avoid unsupervised access to painkillers.
  • Parents and coaches should monitor, store, and dispose of painkillers properly. See Safe Storage and Drug Take Back for more information.