Silhouette of athlete walking towards stadium

Athletes face constant pressure to perform physically, whether they feel up to it or not. This pressure can take an emotional toll on them, too. Many athletes suffer from stress and depression but are afraid to ask for help.

Instead, they turn to alcohol or drugs that numb the stress or boost their performance. What may begin as a once-in-a-while outlet often becomes something they rely on to get through each day.

Sadly, substance addiction leads many athletes to lose their careers, and sometimes their lives.

Drug and alcohol abuse doesn’t have to be the end of the line for athletes. Comprehensive addiction treatment programs are available to help athletes who need individualized care to overcome this struggle.

Why Do Athletes Abuse Drugs And Alcohol?

Many athletes use drugs like anabolic steroids to perform better. Steroids build and strengthen muscle, making a person stronger and able to withstand more muscle stress.

Amphetamines—such as Adderall—also boost performance by giving a person more energy and focus, even when they’re tired. Some athletes who abuse prescription stimulants eventually turn to cocaine as a cheaper and more available alternative.

On the other hand, the stress to play hard and well without ever getting a break causes some athletes to use alcohol or sedative drugs—like opioids—to relax and ease tension.

Athletes who suffer sports injuries don’t always have the luxury of taking time to fully recover, especially if they want to keep their position on the team.

They may use prescription painkillers to numb the pain as they play through it rather than letting it heal. Unfortunately, this can make the problem worse.

Many athletes become addicted to prescription opioids like Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Oxycontin (oxycodone) that are given to them for an injury. These prescriptions are not always closely monitored and may be extended beyond the necessary amount for strong pain relief.

Some athletes who are addicted to prescription opioids go on to develop a problem with heroin. Heroin can be easier to obtain and less expensive than prescription painkillers.

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Athletes And Addiction

Addiction occurs when the brain stops functioning normally and adapts to drugs or alcohol as a necessary part of life. An athlete who depends on a substance to perform or relax is likely to develop an addiction to it.

Many athletes begin playing sports in their teens. Sadly, some may take performance-enhancing drugs because they feel it’s the only way to succeed, or because one of their professional role models takes them too.

Abusing drugs or alcohol during adolescence and young adulthood is especially dangerous because the brain is still developing. Young people are more vulnerable to addiction.

People who develop addiction during these younger years often struggle with chronic relapse, which can lead to long-term health problems.

Most athletes who begin abusing drugs or alcohol find that their careers get worse—not better—as a result.

Ryan Leaf was the second overall NFL draft pick in 1998 and went on to play for the San Diego Chargers. At the top of his career, he suffered a broken wrist and tried to play through it with the help of painkillers.

He became addicted, which ended his football career and landed him in jail more than once. Fortunately, he has since recovered and now helps others who struggle with addiction.

Not everyone is so lucky. Tyler Skaggs, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, died of an opioid overdose in July 2019 at the age of 27. His death brought to light that several of his teammates are also addicted to opioids.

Mental Health Disorders In Athletes

Athletes may abuse drugs or alcohol because of existing mental health disorders. Some have suffered from childhood trauma, while others struggle with depression and anxiety.

Though these issues are relatively common among the general population, athletes may be less likely to “show their weakness” and seek help. This hesitation could be from fear that they will be at a disadvantage in competition or that the sports world will look down on them.

Unresolved mental health issues often lead people to self-medicate and develop an addiction. Addiction can worsen the symptoms of an existing mental disorder, and it can cause other mental health problems as well.

Athletes who experience concussions may be at an even higher risk of substance abuse and addiction.

Tom McHale—a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer—died of an accidental painkiller overdose. It was later discovered that he suffered from head trauma (called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE), which may have contributed to his substance abuse.

Addiction Treatment For Athletes

Since athletes face unique challenges that lead them to substance abuse, they can benefit most from a rehab program that is customized to their needs.

Behavioral therapy and alternative pain relief are two important aspects of addiction treatment for athletes.

A therapist who is trained in sports psychology can be especially helpful in changing the way an athlete thinks about drugs and alcohol. They can work with the individual to pinpoint unhealthy thought patterns, such as a focus on winning and performing above all else.

The goal of behavioral therapy is to modify behavior by changing the way someone thinks. Addiction treatment for athletes aims to help them:

  • break free of other people’s expectations
  • enjoy playing the game and doing their best
  • rediscover their passion for sports
  • believe that they are good enough without substance use
  • focus on training and nutrition
  • turn to alternative stress management instead of drugs

Most addiction treatment programs involve alternative pain relief, which addresses physical, mental, and emotional pain.

Drug rehab for athletes may focus more on physical pain relief, as sports injuries often lead to opioid addiction. It may also deal with the emotional burden that comes with the pressure to perform even when injured.

Alternative methods of relieving pain and stress include:

  • yoga
  • meditation
  • Tai Chi
  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • music therapy
  • exercise

Sometimes, substance abuse and addiction stem from a misunderstanding or lack of information about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol. Many athlete rehab programs provide education on addiction, as well as on how certain drugs work and how they damage the body and mind.

To learn more about addiction and treatment for athletes, reach out to an Vertava Health treatment specialist today.