Addicted Athletes: Unintended Consequences of Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Male and female athletes of all ages and types are no strangers to trying to get an edge, to be one up on the competition. The goals are what every athlete wants: to be stronger, faster, and more agile, to have more stamina, increased energy and focus, and to quickly be able to adapt to changing conditions so as to maximize effectiveness and produce successful results. Striving to beat others’ results as well as their own personal best, is it any wonder that performance-enhancing drugs have become so prevalent among athletes? In addition, athletes suffer pain and often turn to drugs or other addictive substances to ease their suffering or allow them to push through the discomfort and keep competing. They may need a prescription drug to speed healing, and continue to take it long after the condition is past. This sets the stage for an addiction to the substances, whatever they are, including alcohol and illicit drugs. In fact, addicted athletes are no longer the exception although, fortunately, they haven’t become the rule, either. But how widespread is the problem and what’s being done about it? What types of drugs are being used and what are the short- and long-term effects? How easily can an athlete become addicted? And if an athlete becomes addicted to performance-enhancing or other drugs, how can they wean themselves off of these substances and resume a healthier athletic lifestyle?

Numbers Fail to Tell the Entire Story

It may begin in adolescence when a young boy or girl gets into a sports program at school and wants to show their parents and peers just how good they are. When they fall short or don’t measure up to their own expectations, someone in the locker room may have an easy solution: “Take this drug” or “see this guy who can fix you up.” From the first encounter to long-time reliance on certain drugs, it’s an often predictable journey to addiction. Even if adolescent athletes avoid falling prey to the siren song of drugs, by the time they reach high school and college, with the intense pressures to compete and sports scholarships in their sights, it may be nearly impossible to resist that little extra boost that drugs provide. Not surprisingly, adolescent male athletes are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than female athletes, which may be due to the fact that males tend to participate in high-injury sports like football and wrestling. As athletes begin to age and the number and complications of old injuries add up, the old stand-by remedies may no longer provide respite. Thus, the escalation to harder drugs, powerful opiates and heroin may prove the only reliable solution. Accurate numbers of addicted athletes are nearly impossible to come by. It’s been said that over half of all triathletes, 25 percent of all runners, and 48 percent of individuals with an eating disorder meet the criteria for exercise addiction. And doping has been a problem in sports since at least the 1960s. Among body builders surveyed, doping was estimated as high as 81 percent. These are estimates at best. The truth is that whatever numbers are predicted fail to tell the entire story. As a nation, America is likely filled with athletes — professional, amateur and weekend — who find the answer to their quest “for the gold” in the form of one type of drug or another, and it may just as easily turn into addiction.

Drugs of Choice for Addicted Athletes

Which drugs earn the dubious distinction of being drugs of choice for addicted athletes? There are four main categories: performance-enhancing drugs, painkillers, alcohol and marijuana. In the category of performance-enhancing drugs are anabolic steroids, stimulants (amphetamines), human growth hormone (HGH) and supplements (androstenedione or “andro”). Powerful painkillers are also the go-to choice for many athletes who may become addicted to them. These include opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, as well as heroin — which some athletes may turn to if prescription painkillers are no longer available and they seek relief in street drugs. In fact, a Washington University study found that retired NFL players use prescription painkillers more than four times that of the general population. Alcohol is the long-time remedy to dull pain, knock out reality and escape from whatever ails the athlete. Alcohol in combination with performance-enhancing drugs and/or painkillers can be a deadly combination. There’s also marijuana that athletes use to “get in the zone” — to mellow out and come down after a strenuous or difficult workout or performance episode. One study found that male athletes may use marijuana during their competitive season to help them cope with anxiety, stress and negative mood. A Wall Street Journal story on the inconsistent drug policies in college sports resulted in Texas A&M just one week later toughening its own drug policy by instituting a half-season suspension for any player testing positive for drugs.

The Consequences of Drug Use by Athletes

With the wide range of drugs available legally and illegally, the consequences of taking such substances is equally varied — and can prove deadly. The problems associated with taking anabolic steroids include that many athletes take far more of these drugs than necessary. The fact that anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription doesn’t stop their widespread use. Risks and dangers include addiction and dependence, liver problems, rage, violence and/or depression, risk of infection and blood diseases (from injected drugs) and death. Stimulant abuse, including abuse of meth, cocaine, amphetamines and ephedrine (medications like Sudafed) can result in abrupt crashing after the brief high, insomnia, heartbeat abnormalities, brain hemorrhage, convulsions and heart attack — to name just a few. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 72 percent of the more than 22,000 pharmaceutical-related deaths in 2012 were due to opioid pain relievers.

The Road to Recovery

Regardless of the route to addiction, athletes who sincerely want to beat their dependence on drugs can find hope and get on the road to recovery. It all begins with a willingness to address the situation, committing to and sticking with professional treatment to overcome addiction, and taking the necessary steps to live a life without the reliance on drugs — prescription or otherwise. Athletes are used to pushing themselves to the limits and discovering they have what it takes. Put this determination and courage to good use by learning how to live a healthier lifestyle without the crutch of drugs. All it takes to begin is the desire to do so, then follow through on the intention. By Suzanne Kane

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