Special report

In depth: Perils of painkillers for young athletes

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)


USA TODAY High School Sports presents a special report on the epidemic of painkiller usage by high school athletes and the pitfalls of addiction and drug abuse that can follow.

When painkillers lead to addiction

A quarter of the 7.5 million high school athletes each year suffer a sports-related injury each year. Those athletes are often then exposed to habit-forming prescription opiates – codein hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone and more – and the possibility of heavier drug abuse and addiction that follows.

“Had I know pain pills and heroin were so tied together, I would’ve monitored the painkillers a lot more,” said Jennifer Weiss-Burke, whose son Cameron died in 2011 at age 18.

Multiple narcotics prescriptions to help with injuries in football and wrestling had led him to addiction.

“Kids are getting addicted to opiates following a pattern of sports injury recovery,” an Ohio athletic counselor says. “They weren’t looking to get high.”

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Chris Herren’s firsthand story

Former NBA player Chris Herren knows firsthand the dangers of addiction. He said he was taking 1,600 miligrams of pain medication a day when he entered the league. A year later, he was spending $25,000 on heroin. Now, Herren spends his time sharing his story and offering advice to young athletes.

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Prescription for managing pain

The desire to quickly return from injury can start a cycle that leads to addiction to pain medication. When should pain medication be used and what are the alternatives for care?

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‘There’s good kids in pain and self-medicating’

Parents and others who say drugs are only for “bad kids,” are missing the point. The perils of pain medications turning into abuse can impact “good kids” too. An Illinois football and track coach reflects on the importance of identifying causes behind the addiction, the importance of community and the challenges of seeing his own son go down the wrong path.

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