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Athletes and Addiction

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athlete sport pain addiction painkillerThe Challenges of Addiction Among Athletes

Addiction in sports has become a prevalent problem in modern society. Most competitions require a high level of physical and mental strength. Athletes’ families, coaches, and supporters always push them to perform better. This, combined with daily life pressures like taking care of a family or dealing with trauma or mental illness, can quickly push someone to drug use.

Research shows that 89% of college athletes have used alcohol at one point and 52% of professional footballers admitted to opioid use. Some athletes have ruined their careers and even lost their lives due to addiction. But there is always hope. Popular athletes like Chris Herren, Brett Favre, C.C. Sabathia, and Josh Hamilton beat addiction, so you can do it, too. Read on to learn about common triggers, stressors, and pitfalls so that you can fight addiction and regain control of your life.


Types of Drugs Abused by Athletes

There are always people ready to sell illicit substances to well-paid athletes, and this can lead to addiction. Here are some most commonly abused categories of drugs:

  • Performance-Enhancing Drugs: Athletes use such drugs to boost their physical ability and endurance, especially in competitions. Some common options include:
    • Anabolic steroids: Players take these to enhance muscle growth, help them train harder, and quicken muscle recovery.
    • Diuretics: Sports like boxing and wrestling require athletes to pass a drug test and maintain a specific weight. Therefore, some use diuretics to mask illegal drugs in their urine. Diuretics also alter the levels of body fluid and electrolytes, lowering the weight.
  • Human Growth Hormone: Athletes use synthetic human growth hormones to strengthen the skeletal structure, increase muscle mass and boost performance. These include:
    • Erythropoietin: Athletes consume this drug to stimulate the production of red blood cells and increase oxygen delivery to the muscles. This helps improve endurance and increase aerobic power.
    • Androstenedione: This drug helps athletes train harder and recover faster.
  • Stimulants: Stimulants are readily available substances that athletes use to stay alert. Doctors prescribe them to treat conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They include:
    • Amphetamines: Athletes misuse prescription amphetamines or consume illegal methamphetamine to enhance alertness, increase energy, lose weight, and boost self-confidence.
    • Adderall: This drug helps athletes increase focus and reaction time and control fatigue.
  • Painkillers: Players consume large doses of prescription drugs to experience euphoria. Taking Vicodin, opioids, and OxyContin without a prescription or beyond your prescribed dosage can increase tolerance and lead to dependence. Athletes also abuse alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine to reduce anxiety before a game, decrease fatigue, and enhance performance. There is no proven evidence that this works.


Reasons Why Athletes Abuse Drugs

Factors like family history increase the risk of drug abuse. Children living with family members who struggle with substance use disorder have a higher risk of addiction later in life. Individuals who experience trauma, negligence, abandonment, or sexual and physical abuse are likely to develop substance use disorder. Mental issues like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder can trigger drug abuse. Such people turn to substances to gain temporary relief from their pain.

While drug abuse is common among college students, it’s even more so for teens in sports. According to a study, high schoolers who participate in competitive sports abuse drugs more often. This is because there is heightened pressure for these students to maintain high grades in schoolwork and great performance in sports. Some turn to drugs to manage depression, let off steam, and improve performance. This can lead to substance use disorder (SUD) later on. There is, therefore, a need to create heightened awareness in schools and teach young athletes about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.

Retired athletes are also at high risk for drug abuse. To participate in any form of competition, you undergo vigorous training for quite some time. Exercises stimulate the production of dopamine, which gives pleasurable effects similar to those of drugs. When you stop training, you might turn to drugs to substitute for the exercise. If your body is used to intense training, stopping can cause withdrawal symptoms like depression, which can push you to drug use.


Career Substance Use

Athletes who misuse drugs during their prime careers are likely to struggle with addiction after retirement. Based on a report by the NFL, 15% of players who misused prescription drugs when playing continue to do it after retirement. The most common reasons why professional athletes abuse drugs include:

  • To Numb Pain: Athletes are vulnerable to injuries and other long-term health problems. If you play sports, you will always have to push your body to limits that cause fractures, joint sprains, knee injuries, and dislocations. If you’re a dedicated athlete, your passion for sports may keep you playing through the pain. Doctors may administer some painkillers to help manage it, but some athletes take higher doses or stronger drugs to speed up the recovery process so they don’t miss a competition.
  • To Win a Game: Every player desires to win the game. Professionals take their athletic performance seriously, as a chance to build a powerful legacy. This can lead them to turn to steroids and other drugs to enhance their performance.
  • For Fun/Recreational: Most professional players lead a life of fame filled with lavish parties. Some get carried away and begin to abuse drugs they had originally used recreationally to derive pleasure.
  • Due to Easy Accessibility: Money and fame make it easier for athletes to acquire drugs. The sports culture also seems to support addiction. Most players who misuse prescription drugs easily get them from their teammates, coaches, and trainers.
  • To Cope With Retirement: Athletes retire earlier than most working people, and this process may be challenging for some. They may turn to drugs to manage stress when they miss the thrill of competition.


Effects of Drug Abuse on Athletes

For men, a high intake of performance-enhancing drugs can result in prostate gland enlargement, breast growth, and infertility. Women can develop a deeper voice, appear more masculine, and experience infrequent menstruation, baldness, and body hair growth.

If you struggle with an SUD, seeking help early enough will increase your chances of recovery. Continuing to abuse drugs can have negative effects on a player’s career in the following ways.

  • Suspensions: Sports leagues, including the MLB, NFL, NHL, and MMA, address substance use with strict rules. They often screen the players. If you break the rules, you may suffer suspension or bans.
  • Forced or Early Retirement: Addiction can impair a player’s ability to focus, affecting their performance. You might lose your job or be forced into early retirement in such a case.
  • Health Issues: Excessive anabolic steroids can cause hypertension as well as heart, liver, and kidney problems. Stimulants also cause stroke, severe cardiovascular reactions, low blood pressure, and pulmonary embolism.


Why Athletes Hesitate to Seek Help

Most athletes struggle with substance use disorder in silence. This is because society idolizes them for their achievements and physical prowess. Their fans expect them always to display mental toughness, so acknowledging their struggles with drug abuse would seem like weakness. Many people see illegal drug use as a personal failure or lack of character. If a player reveals that they have a drug problem, it can also lead to testing and subsequent punishment for violating the sports association rules.

Most addicts, especially those using painkillers, are hesitant to stop. Once they take the drug, they feel relieved enough to get back to practice since they don’t want to let their team down. The thought of missing a game due to pain can be devastating, so they use drugs to mask the feeling. Others even underreport their pain to the doctors. They don’t take time to heal, and they rely on substances to stay in the game. If you or your loved one is in such a situation, it’s good to know that people out there are ready to help you. Talk to a professional, and they will help you start your recovery.


Addiction Treatment for Athletes

Although athlete addiction seems complex, recovery is possible. Visit facilities like Granite Recovery Centers and discuss your issues with a professional. They will advise you on the best form of treatment. The inpatient program suits people with severe addiction issues. During your treatment period, you will live in the rehab center to receive 24/7 care and monitoring

If you have a mild substance abuse issue, you can opt for the outpatient program. This allows you to live at home and visit the rehab center a few hours a day for treatment. This is the ideal option if you still want to take care of your family, go for athletes’ practice or attend school while working on recovery. If you need a high level of care but don’t want to live in the rehab center, you can choose partial hospitalization. You will spend a significant part of your day in the rehab center but later head home.

Once you get to the treatment facility, a professional will assess your condition to develop the best possible treatment plan. They will want to know what substances you use, how often you use them, and the nature of your home environment. From here, you will continue with the following treatment processes.


Medical Detox

You begin with medical detox to clear the body of addictive toxins. Abruptly stopping use of a drug or reducing intake drastically alters your body chemicals, and may cause side effects like:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Shaking
  • Fatigue

It’s important to note that you should only detox under professional supervision. The doctor will administer medication to ease the withdrawal symptoms and make treatment more manageable. They will also offer support and guide you on how to manage cravings.

Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.



Dual diagnosis programs can be part of an effective treatment plan. It addresses any co-occurring mental disorder that a client struggles with. Half the people with SUDs have an underlying mental issue, so receiving treatment for both conditions simultaneously is the best way to prevent relapse.

One common problem among athletes is anxiety disorder. They worry too much about certain aspects of performance or upcoming competitions. Others suffer from depression due to juggling sports and responsibilities. The physical nature of sports makes some players vulnerable to eating disorders. These therapy approaches can address most of these issues.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This form of therapy helps you gain control of your thoughts, emotions, and actions to learn how they trigger addiction. You will be able to recognize, avoid and manage triggers.
  • Individual Therapy: You will attend private counseling to discuss issues you wouldn’t want to address in public.
  • Group Therapy: Group therapy gives you a chance to interact with people going through similar issues to share experiences and coping techniques.
  • Contingency Management: This treatment method involves providing rewards as motivation towards specific goals, like maintaining sobriety.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: This therapy form teaches you how to regulate emotions, improve interpersonal skills, practice mindfulness, and reduce self-destructive behaviors.
  • Family Therapy: You can participate in family therapy to address mental health issues, increase communication skills, and keep your loved ones engaged in your recovery journey.



Addiction treatment requires a long-term commitment. An effective aftercare program is highly recommended to help maintain recovery and prevent relapse. Some options you can consider include:


The Best Time to Start Treatment Is Now

Don’t let addiction stand in the way of your athletic success. Granite Recovery Centers offers various treatment options that transform the lives of drug dependents. Our success is evident in the growing alumni community. You will overcome drug use and enjoy a successful career with the proper support and commitment. If you have signs of a substance use disorder, contact us now to discuss beginning treatment.