Physically challenging experiences and teammate camaraderie are two common reasons adolescents often cite for engaging in team sports.
Group athletic activities also appear to offer protective elements against prescription opioid painkiller abuse and subsequent heroin addictions.
Despite some anecdotal stories in the media about young athletes becoming addicted to these opioids following injuries, their use among young athletes is rare.
And while use by adults continues to rise to the point where the country is experiencing an epidemic of overdoses, youth athlete use is declining.
These are the findings of a study examining more than 190,000 students in the 8th and 10th grades using data from the Monitoring the Future study.
Philip T. Veliz, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and his team analyzed student responses to questionnaires regarding nonmedical use of opioid prescription drugs and heroin.
The research, published today in the journal Pediatrics, concluded that daily participation in sports and exercise may serve as a protective factor with respect to opioid use.
“We thought maybe athletes are at a greater risk,” Veliz told Healthline, adding he was glad to be surprised.
Of the students studied, 7.6 percent reported using opioids for nonmedical reasons and 1.65 percent reported using heroin.
More than half the students reported being involved in sports or exercising every day. Researchers said that statistic correlated to the athletes being nearly half as likely to use opioids throughout their lifetimes, compared with people who didn’t exercise regularly.
However, if researchers had studied athletes in the 19 to 20 years old age range there “might be a different picture,” Veliz said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2 million Americans abused opioids or were dependent on them in 2014, a trend that’s been rapidly increasing over the past decade.
Heroin, which many opioid-addicted people turn to because it’s cheaper than prescription pills, is increasing in use across genders, age groups, and socioeconomic levels, according to the CDC.
As the tide of addiction continues to swell, researchers are looking for key intervention points, including new prescription practices.
Dr. Seth Ammerman, a board-certified specialist in adolescent medicine and addiction, and director of the Teen Health Van at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, said more doctors are becoming aware of how addictive opioid painkillers really can be.
“We know the younger someone uses drugs the more likely they are to develop an addiction,” he told Healthline. “Opioids should only be used for short-term acute pain.”
Ammerman wasn’t involved in the Pediatrics study, but after reviewing it he said it “looks pretty good.”
“The overall trend they find is in line with what we’re finding,” he said.
Sporting culture dangers
Daily participation in sports can have a protective effect against opioid addiction.
Athletics can also be a child’s first experience with the substances, especially if they participate in sports like football or wrestling.
“There are some more high-contact sports that are more likely [to result in a prescription for opioids] compared to other sports,” Veliz said.
Ammerman said while 8th graders may participate more for fun, high school seniors might take sports more seriously, even if they don’t have plans to pursue an athletic career.
In the environment of contact sports, Veliz said, the favored behavior is to appear invincible, namely in the face of serious injury.
“You don’t cry about it. You get back up. Even if it’s a serious injury, you act like it didn’t happen,” he said. “The level of competition in youth sports is very serious.”
Much like how a student athlete will hide an injury, they can also hide drug use to mask the pain of those injuries. Again, experts say opioids should only be used in the short-term.
“You can build a dependence on them. That’s a reality,” Veliz said.
Veliz is researching other areas of youth sports, namely which specific sports and injuries can lead to opioid addiction.
“It’s shocking how little research is available,” he said.