High School Athletes at Greatest Risk for Drug Abuse

Basketball athlete sitting.

A new problem has come over the horizon on the drug abuse scene, and it wears the face of student-athletes, in high school, falling prey to chemical dependency on the very painkillers that are supposed to help them.

According to Bryan Denham, study author at Clemson University in South Carolina:

“I've studied the use of performance-enhancing substances in sports for about 15 years, and this study extended that line of research to mind-altering substances. Alcohol has always been available, as has marijuana, but young people also may look to stronger drugs for euphoric effects. If prescription pain relievers are overprescribed in certain regions, their use may trickle down to adolescents. Use of narcotic pain relievers may become a habit with some adolescent athletes.”

Professor Denham’s words could not be more concerning, could not resonate more than they do now. It is simple logic, evidenced in clear and present fact, that the introduction of prescription pain relievers into an area can and will result in increased drug abuse in that area. And it won’t just result in increased drug abuse amongst adults. Put enough drugs in an area, whether they are illegal drugs or legal drugs, and before long the young people will get their hands on them, especially young people who are already struggling with physical pain.

Statistics on Student-Athlete Substance Abuse

Young athlete taking drugs.

High school athletes are now the victims of prescription painkillers, an up and coming micro-addiction crisis we’d never thought we’d see. According to the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, it is now common practice to prescribe highly addictive and mind-altering pain relievers to high school athletes who are injured while playing sports. This was and is a terrible idea.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription drug abuse has never been as prominent amongst teens as it is now, with millions of teens opting for self-medication on pills over narcotic street drug use. NIDA analyzed and surveyed about two-thousand three-hundred teens, and the results were concerning, to say the least.

NIDA investigated heavily into rumors about student-athletes abusing prescription painkillers. In the research, NIDA surveyed boys who participated in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, swimming, diving, track, and field. NIDA also surveyed girls who participated in softball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, swimming, diving, track, and field.

NIDA also surveyed, in a separate group, non-athlete student bodies to obtain a clear comparison between the two groups. According to the research, NIDA was able to determine that student-athletes were far more likely to abuse any drug, but were particularly more likely to abuse prescription pain relievers. Male football players had the highest prevalence of pill abuse, which is logical considering that sport has the highest occurrence of injury.

NIDA also discovered that race seems to play a role in prescription drug abuse amongst students. According to the research, white students were far more likely to abuse painkillers than black or Hispanic students were.

A Need for Change

The rates of prescription drug abuse amongst high school athletes are on the rise, and there is no refuting that fact. According to NIDA, twelve percent of male student-athletes admitted to self-medicating on prescription painkillers. Eight percent of female student-athletes admitted to the same.

It is clear that our country went in a very wrong direction when we began medicating student-athletes with powerful, addictive painkillers. This was a mistake. This is not to say that we should offer pain relief to them, but being that there are far better, far safer, far more comfortable methods of pain relief, we could come up with better options for them that are non-addictive and non-lethal.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.