Substance Abuse in Professional Athletes

Few can imagine the pressure that professional athletes face when playing on a field or court in front of thousands of fans. The desire to be better, do better and feel better propels countless athletes every year to use and misuse substances in ways that can alter their career forever.

While the lifestyle and luxury many professional athletes enjoy seems picture perfect from the outside, the professional sports environment is often an ideal breeding ground for substance abuse.

Why Do Athletes Use Substances?

Aside from the internal and external pressures that may cause an average person to turn to drugs or alcohol, athletes experience extraordinary amounts of pressure within their sports. According to the National Institute of Health, two percent of elite athletes across all sports tested positive for using drugs prohibited by the World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA) — this excludes athletes who are using that have evaded testing.

The desire to increase performance output leads to many professional athletes indulging in performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs. The high-stakes expectations that are present in professional sports environments can often encourage athletes to artificially earn their way to the top, usually in hopes of impressing scouts and coaches in comparison to their peers. While PEDs increase performance, they also increase risks of physical injury and health issues. PEDs are prohibited from all major sports leagues in the United States.

Athletes are uniquely susceptible to physical injury — because of this prescription painkiller abuse saturates professional sports. Broken, sprained and strained bones and ligaments are healed efficiently with a combination of medication and rehabilitation, but continued use after the injury is fully healed can lead to addiction. Because of the extensive resources available in professional athletic facilities, athletes have easy access to these medications and can continue to obtain them long after they are necessary. Cannabis and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are also used in conjunction with pain.
Another negative side effect of the immense pressure that comes with professional sports is declining mental health. In many sporting environments, athletes are pushed to their physical and mental limits — despite the lengths they have gone to achieve their level of success, many still return home with depression or anxiety.

Mental illness in professional sports, more often than not, is seen as a sign of weakness rather than a common human struggle. This leads athletes to hide their illnesses and experiment with substances that they feel helps. Additionally, being unable to return from injury can lead to feelings of desperation and hopelessness. Sleeping pills and antidepressants are used commonly by athletes and when used irresponsibly, can end their careers.

All of these sports-related risks of drug abuse come in conjunction with the factors that can determine future drug use for non-athletes. A troubled childhood with substances readily available, a lack of resources in adolescence and even genetic makeup can make any person more susceptible to later substance abuse. Should a professional athlete already suffer from any of these factors, they will be more likely to buy into sport-specific drug-abuse right away.

The Road to Recovery for Athletes

Professional athletes undergo the same substance abuse treatment that anyone else would. However, athletes find it much more difficult to remain sober after rehabilitation. Additionally, the rise in research on the subject of sports-related brain injuries has shown a link between concussions and drug use — this is unique to athletes in contact sports.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that affects nearly 80% of National Football League (NFL) players. CTE causes the brain to develop memory loss, depression, and dementia, all of which can propel players to abuse substances. There is currently no cure for CTE, which results in the rehabilitation process for many of these athletes to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Brain injuries and other factors that uniquely affect athletes are the reasons that rehabilitation and treatment are not nearly as effective for many of them as they are for most people. However, it is possible for athletes to come back from substance abuse and research is continuously being conducted toward a treatment for CTE.


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