Painkiller Abuse in the NFL: A Hefty Price for Entertainment

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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.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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