Sports protect teen athletes from abusing opioids, heroin

July 27, 2016

Sports protect teen athletes from abusing opioids, heroinANN ARBOR—Teen athletes are not as likely to abuse prescription painkillers or heroin as non-athletes, according to a new University of Michigan study published this week in the journal Pediatrics.

Daily participation in sports and exercise—both involving physical activity and positive social connections—may serve as a protective factor from nonmedical prescription opioids and heroin use, said Philip Veliz, research assistant professor at U-M’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

The findings counter previous research that indicates athletes are at increased risk of abusing these drugs due to injury.

In the current study, researchers noted that parents and doctors have growing concerns that teens are moving toward heroin because of its greater availability and affordability as opposed to doctor-prescribed opioids, such as morphine, Vicodin and Percocet.

The research used 18 cohorts of 8th- and 10th-graders from the federally funded Monitoring the Future study. Nearly 192,000 students answered questions about past year participation in sports and exercise, and lifetime nonmedical prescription opioid and heroin use.

A majority of respondents reported past-year athletic participation, with 53 percent indicating involvement in sports and exercise almost every day. About 40 percent played sports once a week at most and about 8 percent did not participate in sports or exercise.

Overall, lifetime prevalence rates of nonmedical prescription opioid and heroin use declined from 8.8 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, in 1997 to 4.4 percent and 0.8 percent in 2014 among highly involved athletes. Use of these drugs also declined among non-athletes, said Veliz, the study’s lead author and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research.

Teen athletes were less likely to take nonmedical prescription opioids compared with adolescents who were not active in similar activities during the past year. Moreover, teen athletes who indicated lifetime heroin use had lower odds of starting nonprescription opioid use before heroin, compared to their peers who did not engage in these activities in the past year.

Veliz collaborated on the study with Carol Boyd, professor of nursing and women’s studies, and Sean Esteban McCabe, research professor at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

The study received funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health.


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