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Athletes Addicted to Painkillers: A Growing Phenomenon

Athletes, especially those participating in competitive sports, are at a higher risk of addiction and drug abuse.

Prescription painkillers are one of the most commonly abused drugs among professional athletes and are used to manage pain and keep playing despite any injuries. In addition, many young athletes are given prescription drugs to deal with the pressure of competition while keeping up with their training and studies.

Why Are Athletes Finding Themselves Addicted to Painkillers?

Controlled substance abuse is widespread within competitive sports, but no drug addiction in the industry is as common as that of prescribed painkillers.

Painkiller addiction typically starts with a doctor’s prescription after a sport-related injury. Once the cycle of prescription medication is completed, athletes continue to abuse the drug to manage pain, avoid having to take time off to recover, or experience the feeling of euphoria opioid painkillers produce when used in large doses.

Factors Contributing to Painkiller Addiction in Athletes

  • Need to play despite injuries: Professional and student-athletes are pressured not only to play for their team but for the possibility of scholarships or being scouted. One missed game could mean the loss of these prospects.
  • Lack of comprehensive medical insurance: Many athletes are only provided with medical insurance for a certain period, after which they may turn to excessive use of painkillers to manage their injuries and illnesses.
  • The stress of competition: The pressure athletes are under to perform may cause extreme stress, which the euphoria and relaxation of painkiller abuse can counter.
  • Mental illness: Stress from the pressures of competing can negatively affect the mental health of athletes, which increases their risk of becoming addicted to painkillers and other drugs.
  • Lack of information: Not knowing the dangers of abusing prescription drugs can leave athletes vulnerable to taking them for longer than prescribed, with a greater chance of developing an addiction.

Opioid painkillers work by binding to the opioid receptors of the central nervous system and blocking pain signals sent from the body to the brain. They also trigger the release of dopamine, which produces feelings of:

  • Wellbeing
  • Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Drowsiness

In many cases, the athletes get these drugs from their coaches, friends, or team doctors, or buy them online or from drug dealers.1

Tolerance and Dependence

The development of tolerance and dependence on a drug is directly related to addiction.

Using large doses of painkillers, or taking them for longer than instructed by your doctor, results in your body becoming tolerant to them. This makes you need more painkillers with each dose to get the same effect or high.

Long-term use of painkillers leads to physical and psychological dependence, making the user unable to feel normal without a regular dose. At this point, stopping or reducing your use of analgesics can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, making you unable to control your cravings and compulsively keep using the narcotic.

Painkiller Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal from painkillers usually begins within eight hours of your last dose and may last up to a week or more, depending on the type of drug and duration of use.

Withdrawal symptoms from painkillers include:

  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Heightened sensitivity to pain
  • Muscle ache
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms all contribute to making it difficult to stop or manage painkiller abuse, which leads to addiction.

Famous Athletes Who Struggled With Painkiller Addiction

Painkiller addiction affects athletes in all sports disciplines. Some of the most famous athletes who have struggled with painkiller addiction are:

  • Dan Johnson, NFL, who at one point used up to 1,000 Vicodin tablets a month
  • Derek Boogaard, NHL, who died from a combination of oxycodone and alcohol
  • Tiger Woods, Golf, who used a combination of drugs like Vicodin, Dilaudid, and Xanax
  • Brett Favre, NFL, who struggled with addiction for much of his career
  • Chris Herren, NBA, who first abused Oxycontin, which later led to heroin addiction
  • Craig Newsome, NFL, who tried forging a prescription for painkillers and got caught

Other athletes who have spoken out about their negative experiences using painkillers include:

  • Rob Van Dam, WWE
  • Aaron Gibson, NFL
  • Eugene Monroe, NFL

Most Common Painkillers Causing Addiction in Athletes

Opioid addiction is by far the most common painkiller addiction among athletes, with around 71% of those who use them also abusing them at some stage.1

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids are easily accessible to athletes who have suffered from an injury, and the most widely abused opiates include:

  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet): Used to treat moderate to severe pain, oxycodone is one of the most frequently abused opioids
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin): Vicodin is a combination of the opioid hydrocodone and another non-opioid painkiller, acetaminophen
  • Morphine: A highly addictive opioid, morphine can be taken as a pill, injection, or even smoked
  • Codeine: Used to treat mild to moderate pain, codeine can be found in several cough syrups and is less potent than other opioids
  • Fentanyl: A powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl is more than 50 times stronger than morphine
  • Meperidine (Demerol): Meperidine is a largely underestimated opioid that can quickly cause addiction if it isn’t taken strictly as directed
  • Methadone: Often prescribed to mimic the effects of heroin and other opioids for those recovering from addiction, methadone is in itself an addictive drug with significant potential for abuse

Long-Term Effects of Painkiller Use

The two most dangerous long-term effects of painkiller abuse are death, often due to overdose, and an increased risk of heroin addiction.


Over 70% of the total fatal drug overdoses in the general population of the United States are due to opioids.2 Overdoses are most common in people who try to stop or reduce their drug use on their own.

Withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings increase their risk of relapsing. In addition, due to the tolerance developed to the drug they used, the dose taken during their relapse may be much higher than their body can handle, causing them to overdose.

Heroin Addiction

The long-term use of painkillers also puts you at high risk for heroin addiction. Once painkillers no longer offer the same effect or access to them is restricted, users may turn to the much cheaper, much more dangerous opioid, heroin, to get their fix.3

Using heroin can change the structure of your brain and cause severe withdrawal symptoms making it very difficult to quit.

When To Seek Help for Painkiller Addiction

Getting help for drug addiction is the first step to recovery. It is crucial to seek assistance if you find you can no longer function normally without painkillers, experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop, or your use of painkillers disrupts your daily life or your relationships with family or friends.

Treatment Options for Painkiller Addiction

There are several treatment options available for those looking to end their painkiller addiction.

Medical Detox

Medical detox involves close professional supervision and assistance as you go through withdrawal and your body rids itself of all traces of the drug. Doctors can also prescribe medicine to help ease withdrawal and prevent a relapse. Near the end of the detox, you will be provided with options for continuing your road to recovery.

Inpatient Residential Treatment

Inpatient treatment involves a residential program that includes group and individual therapy sessions, educational classes, and physically and mentally stimulating exercises while providing support for those suffering from long-term withdrawal effects like anxiety or depression.

Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis provides specialized treatment for people struggling with both drug addiction and mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.

If you or a loved one is suffering from painkiller addiction, there is help available. Call our hotline at (949) 427-9099 to get the assistance you need.


  1. https://www.rehabs.com/addiction/among-athletes/
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html
  3. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/athletes

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