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Drugs & Health Blog

Painkiller Abuse in the NFL: A Hefty Price for Entertainment

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
Sara Bellum

America loves its football—watching an NFL game on a crisp fall Sunday with our friends and families is a big part of our culture. But that fun comes at a cost to the pros who get tackled over and over in pursuit of a touchdown.

A study of retired NFL players found that prescription painkiller abuse among NFL players is rampant, and that abuse continues even into a player’s retirement. The study found that retired NFL players are 4 times as likely to abuse painkillers as other people.

Many players said they abused painkillers so they could play through pain from injuries they might get in a game as well as pain from past injuries that hadn’t gone away. Many also said that they didn’t know about the risks of such abuse or feel like they had a choice. They felt pressure to play on, despite the pain.

Check out this video interview on ESPN featuring NIDA’s Dr. Wilson Compton to learn more about the study. [Video link removed, does not exist anymore; here is a link to the study.]

The Problem With Painkiller Abuse

When taken as prescribed by a doctor, painkillers safely help patients in pain. However, when taken without a prescription or not as prescribed, the effects on the brain and body can be serious. For instance, a large dose could cause breathing trouble that is severe enough to cause death.

Painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin are opioid drugs, like heroin, and misuse of them can lead to addiction.

Do We Expect Too Much of Pro Athletes?

The study found that many NFL athletes also used ketorolac, a medication that reduces swelling, to also help dim pain from injuries. A growing worry about ketorolac is that it thins the blood and could make players more susceptible to the effects of concussions. What’s more, players using medications just to cover pain, not for a specific injury their doctor diagnosed, may raise their risk for injury because they feel less pain while on the field.

So, what do you think? Should professional athletes like NFL players be expected to play through the pain, even if it requires abusing painkillers and other medicines? Let us know in comments.

Learn more about prescription drug abuse and its effects.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


No playing thru pain for either human or animal athletes ie racehorses should be unacceptable and not something to value or view as heroic.
i read this and its very sad can u do a reseach on anabolic steroids


NIDA continues to do research on many different types of drugs and how they affect the brain and body. Prescription painkillers are not steroids but medications used to treat pain. If you are interested in learning more about anabolic steroids and their effects, visit the NIDA for Teens Drug Facts page on anabolic steroids: If you would like to learn more about the dangers of abusing prescription painkillers please visit the NIDA for Teens Drug Facts page on prescription opioids:

You need proper grammer. Then you will get your request.
this stuff can really hurt you don't do it
i would of never thought that professional football players would misuse a drug.
ya I was shocked when i read it.
cant they get suspended out of the games for that ?
I've been in the same boat as them, not as a pro athlete but as an amateur. You don't want to let your team down and you don't want to miss games due to injuries so you suck it up and play through them to show that you are a "leader". At that point in my life I didn't turn to opiates for the pain I just dealt with it and hid it. What happened with me is later in life the after effects of playing through injuries caught up and I began abusing Opiates, fastforward a few years and I'm shooting heroin. I'm clean now, hardest thing I've ever had to do, harder than playing injured, harder than leaving the sports world, etc. They are the devil in a bottle and this country doesn't care because Pharma profits on all ends of addiction!
i didnt know painkillers were like heroin!