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On Deck: An Effort to Make Student Athletes Aware of Addiction Risks

Studies show an elevated risk of opioid addiction for student athletes from injuries suffered in football and other high-contact sports

High school football
Credit: Pixabay

Before starting their sports season this fall, high school athletes in New Jersey will be required to watch a video designed to raise their awareness about the dangers of becoming addicted to prescription pain medicine. And the parents of players under age 18 will have to watch it too.

The new initiative was announced Tuesday by the state office tasked with coordinating addiction strategies in partnership with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which regulates sports programs at the vast majority of the state’s public, private and parochial high schools. These programs involve nearly 300,000 athletes at 437 academic institutions, according to the association.

“Studies have shown that the prevalence of sports injuries put student athletes at a higher risk of opioid use and misuse,” said Sharon Joyce, director of the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies, or NJ CARES. “Our partnership with the NJSIAA will help raise awareness and educate students and parents on how to prevent sports injuries from leading young athletes down the path to addiction.”

Research has shown that student athletes are more likely to be prescribed potentially addictive painkillers than their peers, in large part because they suffer more injuries that require treatment. According to federal data provided by NJSIAA, 12 percent of male athletes and 8 percent of female athletes had used prescription opioids in the past year.

Recent spike in athlete-addiction numbers

Addiction to these drugs can come quickly, and when pills become hard to find, some users turn to illicit drugs like heroin, which are cheaper and can be easier to obtain. In recent years, the majority of new heroin users first got hooked on prescription drugs.

A study of nearly 20,000 youngsters published in 2014 by researchers at the University of Michigan showed that athletes who participate in heavy-contact sports like hockey, wrestling and football are at greater risk than other high schoolers, and those who play less violent sports, for abusing prescription pills and using heroin.

One of the scientists, Philip Todd Veliz, told Sports Illustrated — which did a 2015 story featuring a Rumson-Fair Haven lacrosse goalie who became hooked on heroin — that male athletes in competitive sports were twice as likely to be prescribed opioids than non-players, and four times as likely to abuse these pills, over three years.

However, this may not have always been the case. Another study by the same University of Michigan team involving nearly 200,000 youngsters — suggested that, at least between 1997 and 2014, both abuse of prescription drugs and heroin use had declined for both athletes and others. And, during that period, athletes had lower rates of addiction than their peers.

In New Jersey — where addiction and associated mortality are now on the rise, and drug-related deaths topped 3,000 last year — state leaders felt it was important to do more to raise awareness among young athletes about the dangers of prescription opioids in general. (State officials outlined their multi-pronged approach to the wider opioid epidemic last month.)

“We’re pleased to announce the NJSIAA as our latest ally in the fight to end New Jersey’s opioid crisis,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, whose office oversees NJ CARES. “This partnership has opened a new front for our battle against addiction — high school athletic playing fields across the state.”

Campaign builds on previous anti-addiction efforts

Given their higher risk of sports injuries, Grewal also said it is important to ensure young athletes understand all the risks involved with prescription opioids. “We welcome any opportunity to interact with students and parents on this important issue,” he said.

State law currently requires all schools to distribute a fact sheet on opioid abuse to interscholastic athletes. The new video initiative will build on that policy, which was developed several years ago by the state Department of Education in conjunction with the NJSIAA.

Dr. Jack Kripsak, a family and sports medicine physician who chairs NJSIAA’s medical advisory board, said the fact sheet — which parents must sign — emerged as the association learned more about the scope of the problem and the need to educate both student athletes and their guardians on the dangers of opioid prescriptions. The group also adopted guidelines designed to help doctors identify less addictive options.

Parents choosing safer options

“Parents are much more aware of the dangers of these drugs” these days, Kripsak said Tuesday. And this education allows them to help choose safer options for their children, when those youngsters are injured on the court or playing field. “They never, ever ask for Percocet or oxycodone anymore,” he said of the parents of children he treats.

The video will incorporate much of the information on the existing fact sheet, which details the warning signs of opioid abuse — including decreased interest and ability in athletics. Also included will be recommendations for non-narcotic therapies and tips for safely storing and disposing of prescription medications.

The production will also feature tips to avoid injury, including proper conditioning, hydration and protective equipment, and provide a list of resources for students and parents. And it will stress the importance of emotional support for teammates who are sidelined by an injury. Kripsak suggested it might be made available online.

“Data clearly demonstrates that scholastic athletes are particularly vulnerable to the scourge of opioid abuse,” says NJSIAA executive director Larry White. “We’re delighted to be collaborating on an initiative that I’m confident will have positive impact on the lives of many young people across our state.”

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