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Addiction in Sports

defeated athlete depicting addiction in sports

Athletes face tremendous pressure to perform and win, sometimes at any cost. Some athletes turn to performance-enhancing drugs like steroids or amphetamines to gain a competitive edge. Others rely on illegal or prescription drugs to manage pain from injuries. Some seek to relieve pressure-induced stress through the use of alcohol, marijuana, or other addictive substances. Use or misuse of these substances can lead to addiction, also known as substance use disorder.

While athletes and non-athletes share many of the same risk factors for addiction, athletes face additional stressors unique to competition.

Risk Factors for Addiction in Athletes

Genetics is one of the biggest risk factors of addiction for both athletes and non-athletes. Individuals who have a family history of addiction, have experienced childhood trauma like physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment, or have experienced other traumatic events have a greater risk of developing an addiction.

Any individual who has a mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or has a behavioral or impulse control problem is more at risk for a co-occurring substance use disorder.

The pressure of competition may increase the risk for athletes to develop an addiction, as they turn to illegal or prescription drugs to stay at the top of their game no matter the cost.

Injuries and painkillers

Doctors often prescribe opioids to treat sports-related injuries and chronic pain. Feeling pressured to return to competition before their injury or pain is resolved may push an athlete to continue using opioids beyond the prescribed period or to increase their prescribed dosage. Such misuse can lead to addiction.

A study entitled Injury, Pain, and Prescription Opioid Use Among Former National Football League (NFL) Players found 52 percent of the players used opioids during their NFL career, with 71 percent reporting misuse.

Results of another study, Playing Through Pain: Sports Participation and Nonmedical Use of Opioid Medications Among Adolescents show students playing in injury-prone sports like football and wrestling have about a 50 percent greater risk of misusing painkillers.


Seeking to boost energy, endurance, focus, and reaction time, athletes may abuse stimulants like amphetamine, ephedrine, cocaine, and others. Adverse effects can include anxiety, seizures, aggression, paranoia, and more. The use of stimulants with alcohol or benzodiazepines is especially dangerous.

Performance-enhancing drugs

Athletes may use appearance and performance-enhancing drugs (APEDs) seeking to improve perceived physical appearance and muscle mass or to maximize athletic performance. The most studied class of APEDs is anabolic-androgenic steroids, which boost mood and strength but can lead to devastating, irreversible physical damage.

Use of APEDs can lead to heart attacks, strokes, liver tumors, kidney failure, and psychiatric problems. Stopping use can cause depression and other withdrawal symptoms.

Although still used by some competitive athletes, APEDs are now more widely used by male non-athlete weightlifters. Studies have found a high percentage of powerlifters report they have used steroids at some point.

Addiction is a chronic but treatable disease. If you or a loved one has a substance abuse problem, reach out to a quality treatment center for help.

Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

Turning Point of Tampa Addiction Treatment Tampa Florida

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