Substance Use in Athletes

in Addiction
Published Dec 17, 2020
Substance Use in Athletes

Substance use in athletes is not uncommon and occurs in all sports and at most levels of competition. There are several reasons athletes may turn to drugs or alcohol, including enhancing performance, self-medicating untreated mental illness, and dealing with stress. However, many athletes may not realize the consequences on the mind and body of using different substances. There should be preventive measures, including education, and when necessary medical intervention to address athletes’ substance use.

What Are PEDs?

Performance enhancement is one reason substance use happens with athletes. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) may include anabolic steroids, growth hormones, and diuretics. PEDs do not typically produce feelings of euphoria, leading individuals to believe they are not addictive. However, their effects of muscle mass and strength enhancement may be addictive.

Why Do Athletes Turn to Substance Use?

Athletes experience high rates of mental health disorders. Athletes may be more predisposed to depression than the general population due to the physical and psychological demands placed on their bodies. A sports injury is the number one significant risk factor for developing psychological distress as an athlete who is injured may experience feelings of depression due to not being able to play. There is also a significant relationship between the number of self-reported concussions and self-reported depressive symptoms in athletes.

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder that athletes suffer from. Sports are more likely to produce performance anxiety, panic disorder, and phobic anxiety following an injury. However, in some sports, anxiety may be considered normal. Athletes who experience excessive-performance anxiety levels, however, can experience negative consequences such as impaired performance.

Stress is another factor that may lead to substance use. Stressors that athletes experience can include pressure to perform, injury, physical pain, and retirement from their sport.

Alcohol Use in Athletes

Alcohol is the most commonly used substance within the athletic community. According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) study on drug abuse in athletes, 85% of college athletes report alcohol use and drinking is often normalized in a team setting. For example, when a team wins a game, they may celebrate by drinking alcohol.

However, alcohol has detrimental effects on the body that decrease athletic performance. Alcohol can affect the muscles, inhibiting growth and leading to increased weight gain.  It can also affect the body’s ability to produce ATP, which is the primary energy source for muscles. ATP is made with water, but the body’s water balance is disrupted when alcohol is absorbed into its cells.

If alcohol use leads to physical dependence or an alcohol use disorder, quitting drinking may cause withdrawal symptoms, including excessive sweating, nausea, vomiting, seizures, and delirium tremens (DTs). DTs include periods of hallucinations, confusion, and disorientation, which may be fatal if left untreated.

Anabolic Steroid Use in Athletes

Anabolic steroids are synthetic variations of the hormone testosterone that build muscles and increase male sex characteristics. Athletes may use steroids to boost performance or improve their physical appearance. The NCBI reports that 9% of professional football players and 67% of competitive powerlifters used anabolic steroids at some point in their careers. However, anabolic steroids negatively affect the body short-term and long-term. Short-term mental effects of steroid use may include paranoia, extreme jealousy, extreme anger, delusions, impaired judgment, and mania.

Using anabolic steroids also has long-term effects that can be permanent. These include kidney problems or failure, liver damage, liver tumors, enlarged heart, high blood pressure, cholesterol changes, and increased risk of blood clots. Other long-term effects of steroid use are gender-specific. Men may experience shrinking testicles, decreased sperm count, baldness, development of breasts, and an increased risk for prostate cancer. Women may experience facial hair growth, reduced breast size, male-pattern baldness, menstrual cycle changes, enlarged clitoris, and deepened voice.

Anabolic steroids work differently from other drugs that are commonly abused. They do not activate the “reward system” in the brain that causes “high” feelings. Steroids also do not trigger rapid increases in the chemical dopamine, which reinforces most drug-taking behavior. Despite not creating the same feelings of other drugs, they can still lead to substance use disorder (SUD). Athletes who misuse steroids may experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop, including fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, problems sleeping, decreased sex drive, and cravings.

Prescription Opioid Use in Athletes

Following sports injury, athletes may be prescribed prescription opioids. Opioids such as Oxycontin and Vicodin are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. The use of prescription opioids for more than a few weeks can lead to tolerance, which means they need more and more of the substance to achieve the same effects. Tolerance can lead to physical dependence or substance use disorder (SUD). While prescription opioids may relieve pain, they can also have harmful effects, including drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, and slowed breathing. Slowed breathing can lead to hypoxia, leading to coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

As with other substances, stopping the use of prescription opioids when physical dependence or SUD occurs can cause withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms include muscle and bone pain, sleep problems, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goosebumps, uncontrollable leg movements, and severe cravings. 

Athletes may turn to substance use for several reasons, including performance enhancement, mental health disorders, and stress. Common substances used by athletes may include alcohol, anabolic steroids, and prescription opioids, which can lead to physical dependence or substance use disorder. It is imperative to educate athletes on the dangers of substance use and provide medical attention when necessary. Stopping using a drug or alcohol can cause withdrawal symptoms that are uncomfortable, frightening, and may even lead to death. At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we use proprietary, evidence-based medical protocols that prioritize our patients’ comfort and safety to guide them through the detox process. Our personalized treatment is delivered in a safe and peaceful environment. Gallus Medical Detox Centers also provides you with a bio-psycho-social evaluation with our expert staff to identify your next steps and resources to achieve long-term recovery. If you or a loved one are an athlete struggling with physical dependence or substance use disorder, call us at (866) 296-5242.