Athletes, with their need for a competitive edge, enhanced speed and being able to play through pain, are at a greater risk of becoming addicted to drugs in general but prescription drugs specifically because of injuries and the rising pressure to keep playing even when injured says Peter Bradley, a therapist at Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery which has a unit at Ingalls Hospital in Harvey, Illinois. Bradley is certified in working with dual diagnoses involving substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as Professional Compulsive Gambling Counselor and is nationally certified to work in Illinois as well as other states.
Professional sports figures are often afraid if they don’t play because of an injury someone else will take their place while high school and college athletes worry about losing scholarships and prestige.
“And there’s the fan level,” says Bradley. “You want to please them and that feeling just adds to the pressure.”
At times, that’s apparent even to those watching the game. An athlete withers in pain on the floor, is helped back to the bench, he or she is talked to sternly and then suddenly they’re back on the floor.
“Some of the medications they prescribe for injuries can be doozies,” says Bradley. “The opioids used in pain killers are very strong , very potent and they’re meant for short term use because they are highly addictive. Therein lies the problem, a lot of people get addicted who wouldn’t normally have the profile of someone who would become addict.”
“Sports figures are high arousal people says Larry Brewerton, a psychology professor at Indiana University Northwest. In the past Brewerton has set up alcohol and substance addiction programs in Chicago like the Cook County Dept of Corrections and Mt. Sinai Hospital as well as working as a director of a C.A.R.E. unit in the city specializing in alcohol and substance abuse.
By using the term high arousal, Brewerton is referring to the need for extreme physical and emotional stimulation.
“They’re used to high arousal when they’re playing with a lot of adrenaline going on and they really thrive on that,” he says. “When they’re not off, they still need it. They thrive on it and so many use amphetamines, cocaine, things that keep up that arousal. It makes them feel very good as well as omnipotent.”
College and high school athletes like pro stars use for various reasons—steroids for bulking up, diuretics to lose weight (common among wrestlers who have to fit in a specific class) and amphetamines to speed up.
“It puts you in a no win situation,” says Bradley. “If you don’t use them and compete with those who are using, then they have the edge. But you have to look at it as an integrity thing, about what’s right and what is good for you and your body.”
Bradley believes painkillers are the number one misused prescription drug.
“If you use them too many days you develop tolerance and withdrawal symptoms where you try to stop and these are symptoms of drug addictions,” he says. “Pain patients’ withdrawal from opiate use is like having the flu a hundred times over and addicts know in order to stop these dramatically painful withdrawals is to take the drug. I’m a firm believer that certain people need prescription medicines for certain things, but the potential for misuse is pretty amazing”
Brewerton, who used biofeedback when working with sports stars in order to train them to relax, says that there are many people who are addicted who are not aware of it mainly because of self medicating.
“They look at medicine that is prescribed as being okay compared to drugs on the street,” he says. “Unfortunately general practitioners write a lot of prescription and don’t send patients to specialists to figure out why they’re anxious, can’t sleep and instead of just writing prescriptions…many people out there self medicating.”
There isn’t a clear cut profile of who becomes an addict and who doesn’t.
“There are many different reasons,” says Brewerton. “Most people in their lives have experimented with alcohol or drugs but what makes people go into addiction is another subject in itself. Most people stop but others just keep going. That’s why a therapist needs to find the trigger. Why can two people go out and have a glass of wine or two at dinner and another have a half gallon?”
Treatment can make a difference but Brewerton offers some caveats.
“Many times treatment programs for alcohol and substance abuse ask someone to give something up but you also have to replace it with something to give the patient a way to put themselves in a place that’s very awarding but satisfying and healthy as well,” says Brewerton. “Therapists need to make sure the patient has been seen medically in order to ensure there are no medical issues that need to be dealt with. Then it’s important to do a really good history looking for factors that may have caused their use and continuation of use-- traumatic abuse, car accidents, post traumatic stress disorder, to get an idea what that person is about and why they may be using in the first place and why they continue to use.”
Both Bradley and Brewerton agree that the best chance for recovery is when a patient is committed. If not, when confronted by loved ones, the addict withdraws from them and becomes angry as denial is part of the addiction process.
“That’s an important part of recovery,” says Brewerton.