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What was once a taboo has now a symbol of pride and pats on the back. “drugs”, once used for their medicinal properties and consumed behind closed doors without prescription, have now taken over the world, and people of all ages are making it not only a recreational habits but also integrating it in their daily lives. It is this attitude of the 21st century that has led to one of the biggest issues faced in today’s society- Drugs abuse. Addiction to drugs is common across all ages and all professions. Drug abuse is also very common among athletes.

Why is that so? A single answer does not exist. Depending on age groups, professions, and even cultural differences, many reasons behind substance abuse exist. Many turn to drugs for various reasons such as to deal with loss or pain, because of peer and societal pressure, or as a simple ‘feel good’ habit. The legality and availability of drugs make it easier for people to get addicted and start abusing drugs.

Runners on the starting line, Athletes drug abuse

In the US, in the 1990s, there was increased use of opioids as a prescription drug to relieve pain. As a relatively new drug on the market, the side effects and the highly addictive aspect remained unearthed. Soon this addiction led to abuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids being abused, as these drugs were later found to be highly addictive. A public health emergency was declared in 2017 to combat the issue. In 2019, more than 70,000 people died from drug abuse, and 1.6 million developed opioid use disorder. 

Athletes have been in the news every now and then because of substance abuse. The pressure placed on athletes and even the coaches can be a heavy burden to carry and can easily lead to them turning to substance abuse in order to achieve what they worked so hard for. Only recently, American sprinter, Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana during the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and was suspended for a month. Many other renowned athletes like Maradona, Sharapova, and Michael Phelps have faced drug abuse issues.

In this blog, we will discuss substance abuse in sports. The reasons behind this will be explored in detail. We will also be highlighting the drugs most commonly abused by athletes, alongside the symptoms and side effects of abusing these drugs.

Why are athletes at such a high risk of abuse? Unfortunately, a list of factors exists. The reason why this is important is that only when we understand why addiction and abuse are so common in sports, van the issue be effectively dealt with. Therefore, in order to be fully equipped to combat substance abuse in athletes, it is crucial to identify all underlying causes.  Let us have a look at each factor leading to athletes’ addiction.

Pressure to perform

An athlete’s life revolves around the sports he/she plays and the eyes of spectators are always glaring at them like a hawk. This places them under extreme pressure which might get too much to bear. In order to cope with the pressure to perform and live up to expectations, athletes usually resort to drugs to enhance physical stamina. They want to be stronger than the rest. They want to run faster or lift heavier. They want to punch harder or hit farther. When their body naturally doesn’t allow them to push past the limit, they will start to force it to do this unnaturally. Once this works in their favor, they will do it one more time to experience the glory. And then again, and again. At this point, they have developed an addiction, and going back does not seem like an option.

Doing ‘whatever it takes’

When things get competitive, and the pressure gets overwhelming, athletes tend to develop a ‘whatever it takes attitude to outshine competitors. This attitude might blur their ability to logically assess harmful effects of substance abuse, and at that point in time, the only thing in focus is the will to achieve that nearly unrealistic standard of performance.  therefore, they turn to appearance and performance-enhancing drugs for help.

To deal with Mental Issues

Immense pressure during big or crucial performances such as finals can take a toll on their mental health.  Before such performances, one may face extreme anxiety, and if it ends in disappointment, the public pressure and loss of self-worth could also affect them mentally.  With so much pressure to perform well physically, sportsmen do not have the time to deal with mental issues. They cannot risk any emotional or mental baggage getting in the way of their performance. To cope with the issue, they resort to drugs to ease them mentally.

Painkillers and Opioid Addiction

Being an athlete means constant injuries and aches, to deal with which, drugs are prescribed. Painkiller abuse in athletes and addiction to opioids is one of the most common causes of drug abuse in sports. Athletes do not want to let any weakness get in the way of victory. This weakness includes pain and injury. This is a common occurrence in sports and therefore it is not surprising that athletes will do whatever they can not to feel the pain. Opioids are a common prescription drug but mostly are used even without a prescription. Addiction to opioids is thus very common with leads to abuse of drugs such as Heroin.

Painkillers Addiction Executive Rehab and Treatment

A study conducted in 2009 regarding NFL players shows that 52% of the players used opioids during their careers. It has also been found that there has been an increased use of nonmedical use of prescription opioids within young athletes

 Even team coaches encourage players to use them. Coaches have invested time and effort, usually spending most time trying to train a potential hero that might make them proud one day. They do not hesitate to cross a few lines just to see that dream come to life. This leads to the drug use being validated by the coaches and makes athletes vulnerable to addiction.

Vulnerability in Young Athletes

Young athletes, in particular, are at risk when they observe seniors and coaches having a laid-back, in fact, encouraging, attitude towards such drugs. The stigma around it vanishes and young athletes start consuming and abusing drugs. Success in sports is a symbol of prestige and honor amongst high school students. To do well and to kickstart their professional careers or make a name on their high school team, young athletes are prone to resort to drugs. Let’s not ignore the fact that peer pressure is extremely high in teenagers, and just to maintain a certain image, or to ‘fit in’, it is not surprising that adolescents start to abuse drugs. 

Even in school kids, if there is any sports-related injury, they are likely to get an opioid prescription, which could act as a stepping stone for opioid addiction. 

A Boost of Energy

Drugs are also used to boost energy and act as a stimulant. Being an athlete means having a good reserve of energy. The energy that will help you last and succeed better than an average person. Stimulants increase alertness and decrease fatigue.  Unrealistically high energy and stamina needed during vigorous sports is another reason athletes start substance abuse.

The ‘Perfect Body’

Another reason for addiction in athletes is the constant struggle to fit into the image of a ‘perfect’ athletic body. Athletes will use drugs either to gain or lose weight in order to get their bodies to look a certain way. Athletes have a professional image to protect in sports, but that image is not limited to just that. They must also keep up with their physical image and have a body that fits the stereotypes of what kind of a body is needed for that particular sport. Athletes may have to drastically lose weight to achieve this body one may have to gain considerable weight, to look strong and buff for their particular sports. For the body to look good externally, they are willing to damage it internally.

Availability and Legality

Drugs are easily available and are legal. This means nothing is holding athletes back from using them. This common use leads to addiction too. Athletes find it to be a quick fix to any issue they are facing in performance, and feel like they can easily achieve their goal just by using drugs. Getting drugs such as opioids easily prescribed, or even being able to get them without any prescription makes it easy to get addicted. The stigma around drug use has gone soft and people now readily accept drugs as part of leisure and fun. This removes any doubt or moral hesitation a person might have and makes athletes readily abuse drugs. Most drugs are now considered legal and therefore, easy to use with a high risk of abuse. Since drugs have become so common, an athlete might decide to try them out just once or twice for leisure or under pressure. What they initially plan to be a one-time use has a profound potential of ending up in a long, life-threatening addiction.

Dealing with loss or emotions

To deal with loss and emotional pain, athletes may start to abuse drugs in order to cope and not let their mental state hinder their performance. As mentioned earlier, in July 2021, an American female sprinter was suspended from the Tokyo Olympics because she tested positive for marijuana. The athlete used drugs to deal with the loss of her biological mother.

Through their prime years, they follow such a rigorous lifestyle that they do not have time to mourn a loss or give heed to emotions. At the end of the day, they are still human, and shaking off such feelings can prove to be quite difficult. Therefore, they turn to drugs to help them overcome their feelings and emotions, so they can be clear-headed during their performance.

Let us now glance over the common types of drugs used by athletes and how they can potentially harm the athlete.

Opioids and Heroin

As noted, opioid is very common as it works as a pain reliever, and is not only readily available but prescribed too. opioids are highly addictive, and side effects include constipation, nausea, and serious respiratory issues. Those who get addicted to painkillers are also likely to start using heroin. A baseball player once got addicted to OxyContin and this led to abusing heroin. The heroin addiction proved to be fatal as he died due to overdose.

 the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reveals that a full 80% of users turn to heroin after abusing opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. 

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are common performance-enhancing drugs, used to look buff, but can have devastating side effects. Given what this drug can help athletes achieve, it is quite popular in sports. They can lead to hormonal issues such as loss of periods in women, and the development of breasts in men.  many more issues can stem from using anabolic steroids. It has some reversible side effects, but some are permanent.

Anabolic Steroids Addiction and Side Effects

Here is a list of likely side effects in males and females:

  • Mood swings
  • Mania
  • Depression
  • Delusions
  • Aggression
  • Acne
  • High cholesterol
  • Nosebleeds
  • Hair loss/balding
  • Fertility problems
  • Retention of fluids and swelling
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular problems (e.g., enlargement of the heart, heart attack, and blood clotting)
  • Liver tumors
  • Liver cancer
  • Issues stemming from injection use (e.g., skin infections, HIV transmission, and hepatitis)

Adderall(amphetamine) and other Stimulants Abuse in Athletes

Drugs like Cocaine, Methylphenidate, D-methamphetamine, etc., are used as stimulants to boost energy. Long-term effects of these drugs include cardiac arrest, tremors, and even death.

Amphetamines like Adderall are a common prescription drug for ADHD and are used by athletes for various reasons including increased reaction time, higher endurance, and better strength. On a day where athletes feel under the weather, Adderall is often used to pick them back up.

High school athletes and young players are likely to consume this drug because it gives the user a feeling of being ‘high’. It gives a punch of extreme pleasure and this is the sensation addicts want to experience again and again.

Common side effects include difficulty to sleepy, mood swings, and anxiety. The withdrawal symptoms seem to be more worrisome. If one tries to abstain from the drug, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps are common occurrences. It also leads to depression which can, in turn, stir suicidal thoughts.

Ephedra (ma huang)

This is a Chinese drug intended to treat lung problems. However, when it arrived in the US, it was sold as a drug for weight loss and to boost energy. At a low dosage, side effects include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, seizures, hepatitis, psychosis, stroke, injury of the heart muscle, etc. In extreme cases, death is also a likely outcome.

Other recreational drugs

In order to enhance performance, athletes consume alcohol, cannabinoids, narcotics, and nicotine. Alcohol is banned in very few competitions only. As an attempt to ease anxiety, athletes may use these drugs. There is little evidence to suggest that these drugs actually enhance performance.  Narcotics decrease pain. Nicotine can aid weight loss and enhance attention.

Athletes will usually stay hushed about addiction issues as they do not want to ruin their reputation. Usually, because of this, the issues are not identified at an earlier stage and this leads to drastic results when eventually the person is found to have a drug problem. Sometimes it is even too late to save their lives. This unfortunate fate can be avoided to a great extent if family and friends of athletes keep a keen eye out for any symptoms indicating a drug problem.

Getting addicted leads to some physical and behavioral changes in the person. These changes are not easily hidden and can be easily identified by loved ones. Identifying the issue before it gets out of hand can lead to saved lives and careers.

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Lying and hiding are usually some of the most common signs. They might lie to you about having stopped substance abuse or about not using it ever. Regular drunkenness is another obvious sign. These symptoms could appear together with being socially distant and quiet.

Their social activities could start to revolve around drugs, and they start engaging in unsafe sex, and risky activities. They also start to get bad grades or perform badly at work. As an athlete, this obviously takes a toll on their performance and they stop doing as well as they once did.

Memory loss and blackouts are also an indication of their drug addiction. Mood swings accompanied by a frisky, irritable attitude could also be a sign. Their drug tolerance would increase and now they will be able to consume a larger number of drugs. Soon their ability to have rational thoughts diminishes and they are unable to control what they consume.

A coach is in a position to identify when a player starts to act strange. He/she can immediately confront the athlete before it gets out of hand.

As seen so far, many reasons and temptations exist to lure athletes into the trap of drugs. Many notable names have been given in.

Lance Armstrong

The famous cyclist was accused of drugs abuse for 12 years during which time he won multiple titles. He and his teammates used PEDs. USADA report gives details about Armstrong’s charges.

Maria Sharapova

A spectacular tennis star tested positive for meldonium failed a drug test in 2016’, a performance-enhancing drug. Because of this information coming to light, Sharapova’s reputation went a little downhill and many big brands and companies such as Nike stopped endorsing her.

Michael Phelps

The 18-time Olympic gold medallist was suspended from swimming for 6 months after his second DUI arrest. Phelps was enrolled in a 6-week rehab program to focus on his alcohol addiction. his pictures were also leaked in which he is smoking marijuana from a bong.

Lamar Odom

Former NBA basketball player had a  severe addiction to cocaine and other substances. He spent 4 days in a coma after being found unconscious in a Nevada brothel in 2015.

Diego Maradona

The legendary soccer player tested positive for the banned ephedrine. FIFA also discovered other prohibited substances such as phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, non-pseudo-ephedrine, and methylephedrine. Maradona faced a 15-month ban as a result. In 1991, cocaine was found in his system in Italy, and was suspended for another 15 months.

Andre Agassi

A crystal meth addiction was developed by the tennis player, and he even tried to cover it up by lying to tennis authorities and failed a drug test in 1997. Agassi fought the addiction and completed a career in Grand Slam.

For some athletes, the addiction led to death and an end to the career they risked their lives for.

The social stigma attached to admitting you need help can get in the way of addicts getting the support they need. Athletes in particular want to avoid making headlines about getting therapy. They fear risking their reputation and their career.  The shame of being an addict or the struggles of being one could prove to be too tough to handle. Therefore, they either ignore the issues they are facing or try to deal with them on their own. This does more harm than good. Oft times, withdrawal symptoms can be worse than the side effects and need to be dealt with in a professional manner. Suddenly stopping the use of certain drugs could prove harmful proving to be fatal or suicidal.

Thus, it is highly advised and encouraged to reach out to a professional and open up about your issues. Once you show willingness, you will witness many options to help you deal with the problem. Whether you confide in a friend, a loved one, or a coach or team-mate, bear in mind that it is essential to talk about it. Staying silent and suffering on your own is not the solution. You will not be judged; you will not face retribution. In fact, you will see the warmth and support society has to offer.  Privacy is respected and patients are given utmost priority. So, get in touch with a treatment provider and explore your treatment options. Find the one that suits you best and start your journey back to life. Let’s get addicted to recovery, not drugs!

FAQs (Athletes Substance Abuse)


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