Teen athletes at risk of opioid addiction

A talented baseball player was sentenced last week in New York in connection with the distribution of the painkiller oxycodone, which he started using after a rotator cuff injury, the Albany Times-Union reports.

Angel Nuñez was a scholarship athlete at The College of Saint Rose, but in 2009, he got into a fight with another player and lost that scholarship. Then, in 2011, he injured his shoulder during a tryout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, started using oxycodone to manage the pain, and got addicted. “Angel’s dream was to become a professional baseball player,” wrote Michael Jurena, Mr Nuñez’s attorney, in a letter to the judge in the case. “Angel had such exceptional baseball skills as a pitcher even as a younger boy that he had an opportunity to turn professional right out of high school.”

In addition to turning kids to a life of crime and imprisonment, painkillers that athletes sometimes take for a sports injury can leave them addicted to drugs like heroin. (Both heroin and oxycodone are opioids, and both are addictive.)

“The cultural image of teens dressed in black, locking themselves in their rooms to do drugs has prevented many people from realizing how at risk other high schoolers can be for addiction, particularly those involved in sports,” writes the Alpine Springs Rehabilitation and Recovery Center in Linesville, Pennsylvania.

“For this demographic, addiction isn’t about chasing a high,” the center writes. “Pain management without opioids may be the first line of defense against a reliance on drugs. Parents, health care professionals, and coaches should educate themselves to be part of the answer.”

Although it’s still banned by the NFL, some chatter took place around the Super Bowl earlier this month concerning the use of medical marijuana as a painkilling alternative to opioids, the Houston Chronicle and CNN reported.

Addiction has taken root in the NFL, CNN said, and if it’s happening there, colleges and high school can’t be far behind. A 2011 study in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, concluded that more than half of all retired NFL players used narcotic painkillers during their careers, and 71 percent ended up abusing those painkillers.

“We know cannabis isn’t 100 percent safe,” CNN quoted Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan as saying, “but the meds that doctors administer to players every week is killing people across the country. Cannabis should be explored,” he said. (His assessment of marijuana’s dangers is a severe understatement, by the way.)

Whether different pain-management drugs can be used is a subject for medical doctors in treating each individual patient, but the narcotic nature of opioid painkillers like oxycodone has stirred considerable debate among politicians, mainly because addicts commit other crimes in order to get the drug from non-medical sources.

The legislature in New Jersey is right now considering a bill that would impose some of the strictest rules in the country on doctors’ ability to prescribe opioids, the Courier-Post reports from Cherry Hill.

One of the cases there that prompted legislative action is a former high school student who turned to a life of crime to support his addiction to opioid painkillers. He tore two ligaments in his thumb during a football practice at Mountain Lakes High School and, like so many other high school athletes, started taking opiate painkillers with a prescription from his doctor.

Before long, his doctor stopped the prescription refills without weaning him off the drug, and he needed to get it off the street. He soon found himself charged with burglary, theft, and even animal cruelty, following the death of his girlfriend’s dog, and eventually turned to heroin and almost died. “I was lying in a hospital bed in intensive care for two weeks, no feeling,” the paper quoted the former athlete, now 25, as saying. “After losing everything—football, everything—my purpose was gone.”

The law in New Jersey is written to allow doctors to prescribe opiate painkillers only for acute pain and only for a maximum of five days. The present law allows doctors to prescribe an initial 30-day supply.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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