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Opioid Addiction and Athletic Injuries: A Surprising Connection

November 1, 2018 - - 0 Comments

Opioid Addiction




Think back to high school athletics. When you or a friend were hurt, it’s unlikely that the injury was taken very seriously. Whether you were a dancer, a football player, or a track star, it’s probable that your coach encouraged you to “walk it off” when you got hurt. The goal was to return to the sport as soon as possible. A sideline trainer may have wrapped your injury in an ACE bandage or handed you a bag of ice before returning you to the bench so that you could play again. As a young athlete, it’s likely that you sucked it up, dealt with the pain, and got yourself back in the game.

This view of adolescent injury was very common as recently as a decade ago. Coaches, players, and parents would encourage student-athletes to push through the pain, often with the far-too-used mantra of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Lack of proper rest, corrective exercise, and full healing in adolescence set many student-athletes up for issues with addiction to opiates, opioids, benzos, and other prescription drugs later in life. Thankfully, today’s coaches are more cognizant of the needs of athletes when it comes to healing from injuries.



Ongoing Pain: The Toll On The Body

If you’re a former student-athlete who suffered from an injury when you were young, it’s very likely that the injury still affects you today. Whether it results in back pain, joint pain, or headaches, high school athletics injuries can linger for decades. Concussions can also cause ongoing migraines, vision problems, and mental health issues for years after the injury occurs. Ongoing pain can take a huge toll on the body, both physically and mentally. Many people who struggle with serious chronic pain end up having mental health issues, such as depression. It’s even possible for former athletes to have trauma and PTSD related to their injury. This makes sense if the injury was particularly traumatic- think about getting a career-ending hit in football, or breaking a bone during a wrestling match.

Athletic InjuryIn the case that an injury was handled properly, it’s unlikely that the injury would cause lasting effects. The problem is that most injuries in recent decades were not handled properly. Coaches didn’t allow athletes to have enough time to rest and fully recover. Most head injuries were simply brushed off, as long as the athlete was able to stand and didn’t simply pass out. Some coaches took these injuries seriously, but most did not.

While some former athletes deal with their injury through physical therapy, that’s not always enough to get rid of the pain. Even the strongest minded person will struggle to “tough it out” with chronic pain for so many years. Many people end up using prescription painkillers as treatment for their chronic pain. Some people do this legally, through their primary care physician or through a pain management clinic. Other people do this illegally. Getting painkillers illegally does not necessarily mean buying them from a drug dealer on the street. It’s easy to fall into painkiller addiction after simply using a few leftover pain pills from a friend’s surgery. Many people who suffer from chronic pain also use benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, to help them relax. Chronic pain sufferers sometimes struggle to sleep, exercise, and do other typical daily living activities that most people don’t think about twice. When a pill gives them relief from pain they’ve felt for years, it’s hard to only take one.


Case In Point:

Check out Rebekkah’s story and her public video project with  The Truth’s opioid awareness campaign. A promising young dancer, she watched her life nearly slip away due to being prescribed prescription pain medication at the young age of 14. She eventually turned to heroin as a way to deal with her addiction to prescription opioids. It’s easy to look at someone who suffers from heroin addiction and think that “regular” people could never become addicted to street drugs, but nothing could be further from the truth. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, and young athletes are particularly susceptible due to their high likelihood of suffering painful injuries.

Not all people who use painkillers for the management of chronic pain will become addicted. Addiction is more likely in people who have struggled with addiction to other behaviors or substances, such as alcohol. It’s important that pain medications only be used under the supervision of a trained physician who is well versed in the patient’s medical history. For many people, however, this is not the case with painkiller use. Some people tough out the pain for as long as they can, then take more painkillers than they should to get some relief. Others will be able to make it days or weeks without using their medication, and then need to use their pills in order to sleep after a particularly stressful day at work affects their chronic pain. This type of use is common, and it makes it much more likely that the person will become addicted to the pills. Large doses create a sense of relief that becomes difficult to replicate over time.

In the weeks or months that follows the first use of prescription painkillers, the body develops a resistance to the drugs. This is true for opiates, opioids, benzos, and other drugs that are used for chronic pain. This resistance means that the user needs to increase their dosage to feel the same pain relieving effect they felt the first time they used the drug. This is a problem because increased levels of these drugs are associated with increased health problems, including withdrawal symptoms, heart attacks, and even death. Doctors have legal limits on the amount of painkillers that they are able to prescribe to their patients. When someone who deals with chronic pain can no longer obtain their medication legally, it’s understandable that they turn to other means.



The Transition To Heavier Abuse

Opiate AbuseMany people who become addicted to pharmaceutical opiates and opioids eventually turn to heroin. While this seems like a big leap, it’s really not. The chemicals in heroin work the same way as many prescription painkillers in stopping the brain from receiving the signals that indicate pain. For someone whose doctor is no longer willing to prescribe pain medication, heroin can be easier (and less expensive) to obtain. Many people who use heroin also eventually turn to using methamphetamine, as this class of drug can counteract heroin’s calming, sleepy effects.

When people become addicted to drugs (both prescription painkillers and illegal drugs), their lives can quickly spiral out of control. Their addiction can create a one-track mind, leading them to do nearly anything to get their drug of choice. Their physical pain paired with their withdrawal symptoms can create a life that feels unlivable. Often, addiction leads people to do things that they would not otherwise do. The sense of shame and embarrassment that comes along with these behaviors can make people afraid to seek the treatment that they need in order to begin their path to recovery.

Dual-diagnosis addicts are people who struggle with addiction and mental health issues. For people who have dealt with chronic pain, mental health struggles are common. Years of chronic pain can lead to insomnia, anxiety, and depression. It makes sense that people who struggle with mental health and chronic pain (regardless of which issue came first) would turn to drugs or alcohol in order to find relief. Many people who struggle with mental health issues and addiction fear that they may be too far gone to begin the path to recovery, but this is not true. Dual-diagnosis addicts simply need more specialized help than addicts who do not also suffer from a mental health issue. There are many different treatment options, from 12 step programs to standard inpatient rehab. It may take some trial and error, but there is an individualized path to recovery for any addict who wants to get better.



Alternative Coping Methods

Athletic InjuryIf you or someone you love has relied on painkillers to deal with the pain resulting from an old injury, it can be scary to think about living life without having a medication to ease chronic pain. Luckily, there are many alternative methods to dealing with pain. Physical therapy is hard work, but over time, it can provide great pain relief, even for pain caused by injuries that are decades old. Many people also find relief from regular chiropractic treatment. Today’s chiropractors are educated in many methods of pain relief, and their treatment goes beyond simply cracking backs. A chiropractor can help evaluate the source of pain and give you stretches to do in between appointments, so that you can continue making progress even when you aren’t in their office. Many medical insurance plans cover physical therapy and chiropractor fees.

There are also lifestyle changes that can help with the management of chronic pain. Yoga is an excellent way to quiet the mind and heal the body. While attending class in a yoga studio is a great option, there are also plenty of videos online that teach you how to do yoga in the comfort of your own home. Along with yoga, nutritional changes can be helpful for people who deal with chronic pain. Pain is often caused by inflammation in the body, and ridding the diet of foods that cause inflammation is key in getting rid of the pain. A great place to start is eliminating processed sugars and carbohydrates from the diet. Many people notice that their chronic pain begins to dissipate within days after removing these foods. It’s normal to feel a little bit down as processed foods begin to leave the body- sugars can be an addiction all their own. It’s important to drink plenty of water and get some extra sleep to help you feel better as your body adjusts to life without processed food.

Of course, lifestyle changes are only one piece of healing injuries that cause chronic pain. It’s essential to work with your doctor and treatment team to figure out a way for you to manage your pain without the use of painkillers.



Addicted? What To Do Next

If you’ve found yourself addicted to painkillers or other drugs to deal with you chronic pain caused by an old injury, please know that you are not alone. Addiction does not make you a bad person- it simply makes you a person who is dealing with a hard-to-manage disease. You don’t have to go through this on your own. Our caring counselors are available to talk to you about treatment options 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no need to feel shame or guilt for needing help. Whether you’re using prescription painkillers or illegal drugs, we’re here to get you treatment and help on the path to recovery. We’ll help you through a medical detox that will comfortably help get the drugs out of your body. Reach out in whatever way feels comfortable for you. You can call us at 1-877-345-4138. You can also live chat with a counselor here on our website. We look forward to talking to you.

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