Anecdotal reports suggest that injured teen athletes who are prescribed opioids are getting addicted, but research is conflicted

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Three high-school athletes, two playing football and one a swimmer, recently told NBC News how they got hooked on opioids after being prescribed them for sports injuries. The news story warned parents to ask questions before allowing their children to be prescribed opioids.

John Haskell was one of those teens. He said at age 15 he was prescribed a powerful painkiller after his fourth concussion playing football to treat his excruciating headache.

“He looked in my ears, checked my hearing, checked my eyes. And the next thing I know, I’m at CVS getting Vicodin,” Haskell told Jenna Bush Hager and Aliza Nadi of NBC News.

After going through his third refill of Vicodin, Haskell said he started buying it illegally, but eventually switched to heroin because it was cheaper.

A health expert encouraged parents to talk to their doctors about alternative treatments to opioids.

“As a parent, you need to take a more advocating role and ask your provider why are they going this route,” Dr. Harold Shinitzky, a sports psychologist, told NBC. “Why is it automatically an opioid or a painkiller?”

After going through treatment, Haskell, now 18, is sober, as are the other two teens in the video.

What the research says

While a study published in Pediatrics released earlier this year found that teen athletes are less likely to abuse prescription painkillers than those who don’t play sports or exercise, other research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, says that teen athletes participating in high-injury sports have a 50 percent higher odds of doing so.

Philip Veliz ,the lead author of both studies said that while anecdotal evidence that prescribing opioids to teens after a sports injury is leading some of them to becoming heroin addicts, current research does not support this claim, James Bernstein of HealthDay News reports.

Bernstein writes, “Veliz said, no large-scale studies have assessed whether abuse of recommended painkillers is actually leading to an “epidemic” of heroin use among teens who frequently engage in sports and exercise. On the contrary, this new study suggests there may be “positive social connections embedded in sports that can deter youth from serious types of illicit substance use,” such as heroin or cocaine.”

However, Veliz also noted that more research is needed to determine why some intense contact sports, like football and wrestling, place teens “at greater risk” for painkiller abuse,

The 2015 Youth Behavior Risk Behavior Survey found that almost 13 percent of Kentucky’s high school students said they have ever taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription. Nationally, that number is closer to 17 percent.

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