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Collegiate athletes especially vulnerable to opioid addiction

Joseph Chavez, a cheerleader at New Mexico State University, is very familiar with sports-related injuries. Over the last few years he has accumulated several afflictions including shoulder tendonitis and more recently, a torn ACL and meniscus in his knee which required invasive surgery. To cope with the severe sharp pains throughout the day, Chavez was prescribed Hydrocodone and Acetaminophen, sometimes taking up to four pills a day out of necessity. However, it quickly became apparent that the drugs were taking a negative toll on him.

“I felt very drowsy and really unlike myself when I was on all those painkillers,” Chavez said. “I stopped taking the pills once I noticed that I was becoming dependent on them to ease my pain.”

Chavez was wary of the dangers that came with opioids because of his own experiences with teammates becoming addicted to them. Although he has never used pills recreationally, he knows several former and current athletes who have. Chavez decided to learn from their mistakes once he saw firsthand how the drugs affected his personality and mindset and proceeded to stop taking them entirely.

The state of New Mexico is notorious for having one of the largest populations of opioid abusers in the United States. Among the many abusers are collegiate athletes who likely began taking prescription pain killers to aid the recovery process after suffering from an injury.

According to the Collegiate Football Fund, around 20,000 athletes get injured each year in NCAA football alone. To stay on the team many of these players are prescribed opioids like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone to help with pain and allow them to continue practicing and playing. Athletes can quickly find themselves becoming dependent on the drugs to help them play through the many injuries they face during their careers.

Data from the National Federation of State High School Associations state that around seven million American teens played high school sports in 2013. Around 8.2 percent of those who played high school sports sustained an injury requiring surgery and became subsequently exposed to opioid painkillers.

Often, multiple pills are consumed to ease pain even further, but for athletic trainers it’s not easy to monitor the exact number of painkillers their athletes take. Student athletes can find themselves at risk for addiction simply by tending to their agony after having surgeries.

Jesse Olson, a former collegiate football and baseball player, is no stranger to injuries either.

Olson received his first three injuries while still playing middle school sports and racked up a total of 10 injuries before he finally stopped playing. Although he struggled to stay healthy, he still managed to earn an athletic scholarship at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Unfortunately, he received his career-ending final knee injury just two years into his collegiate football career. Sustaining his health while also playing at a much higher level was a difficult task and Olson often used painkillers to cope with the wear and tear his body went through.

“I just felt happy, a little loopy. It made you feel good, kind of like you were drunk,” Olson said, as he described how he felt being on painkillers. “I knew they were addictive so I tried to stay away from them and not take them as much as I should’ve.”

Olson suffered from a broken left arm, left foot and right hand growing up while also dislocating his shoulder and tearing his ACL joint and meniscus twice playing sports. During that time, he was exposed to several different painkillers including Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycodone. Although he tried to keep his daily intake of pills to a maximum of four or five, Olson had many teammates who would consume an amount of pills well over his own limit. After having his second knee surgery in a span of two years, Olson decided to stop playing collegiate football to prevent further injury to his body and an increased risk of opioid addiction.

Paul, a collegiate cheerleader, had his first experience with prescription painkillers after suffering from a knee injury resulting in damaged cartilage. Although his knee didn’t need surgery, he was prescribed Hydrocodone and immediately felt the relief that the pills provided. However, he began taking up to eight pills a day and although he didn’t feel like he was addicted, he did understand that the amount of pills he was consuming may not be safe.

“When I was on Hydrocodone I constantly felt tired and like the hours in the day blended together,” Paul explained. “I know athletes that get injured and get prescribed painkillers by team doctors only to lose their scholarships and put their health in danger because of an addiction they formed.”

Like many others, Paul used his Hydrocodone pills recreationally as well. Mixing opioids with alcohol can have fatal consequences, however, he was fortunate he didn’t suffer from any severe health issues. Paul has since slowed down his intake of prescription pills and hopes to be a cheer coach in the future.

The national opioid epidemic claimed 33,000 lives in the United States in 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people assume these individuals addicted to painkillers are “junkies,” but fail to consider that thousands of them are actually athletes who sustained severe injuries. This misconception can result in athletes being overlooked when addressing drug addiction. Perhaps better education regarding the dangers of opioids should be provided to athletes when these highly addictive medications are prescribed.

If you or somebody you know is suffering from an addiction to opioid/painkillers call 1-877-276-9388.

This article is part of a series titled The Opioid Epidemic in America. To read more stories in the series click on the links below:

A small town of 10,000 struggles with the opioid crisis

In New Mexico, opioid addiction does not discriminate

NM officials, activists, leaders unified to fight opioid addiction

Police, firefighters get certified to use Narcan

Road to recovery: Her baby gave her a second chance

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