How Opioids Affect Exercise and Athletic Performance

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Sports and exercise keep your body healthy and strong.

So why is it that many healthy, strong athletes have such a high risk for substance abuse disorder— particularly with opioids (1)?

In all age groups, from youth sports to professional leagues, we see many athletes and fitness lovers succumb to substance abuse and opioid addiction. What are the risks involved in exercising while taking opioids? And what are some precautions to take when they’ve been prescribed?

Let’s explore why athletes are vulnerable to substance abuse, and how opioids affect exercise and athletic performance.

Student Athletes are at Higher Risk for Opioid Abuse

When it comes to physical sports or intense exercise, injuries are often part of the package.

Sometimes those injuries result in pain that’s severe enough to qualify for a prescription painkiller. In other cases, youths have access to prescriptions that are not their own.

Early research indicates involvement in sports increases the risk for prescription opioid use and misuse (2). This is especially true in high-injury sports like football or wrestling. Studies show these athletes had a 50 percent higher chance of nonmedical use compared to those of the same age who don’t participate in similar activities (3). Even professional athletes are not immune. Some of the most popular former NFL players have admitted to their battles with addiction—so it’s little surprise that adolescents are vulnerable to the same fate after injury.

Unfortunately, opioid dependence can happen in just five days []. Just one sprained ankle or fractured wrist is all it takes to lay the groundwork for opioid abuse. And whether you’ve been prescribed painkillers or have access to them in a loved one’s medicine cabinet, addiction can develop just the same.

How Opioids Affect Exercise and Athletic Performance

If you’re taking opioids for a sports injury, it’s probably best to adjust your routine. Why? Because according to experts [], opioids do more than reduce pain—they impact the way your heart, lungs, and bones function(4).

Here’s how:

  • Opioids affect your heart’s rhythm. Your heart responds appropriately to your activity levels. With opioids, this natural function is thrown off. Many people find that their hearts beat slower or faster when they take opioids. This makes high intensity exercise while on opioids more challenging, less effective, and downright dangerous.
  • Opioids decrease endurance. Opioids slow down your breathing. When you breathe less, less oxygen is pumped into your muscles. If you’ve taken a painkiller, it might be harder or impossible to hit the same number of reps or run as fast as you’re used to.
  • Opioids increase your chance for injury and falls. The “relaxed” feeling opioids give you might impact your reaction time and even throw you off balance. So while painkillers are offered as a response to sports injury, they also increase your chances for more injuries if you’re exercising while on them.
  • Opioids decrease bone strength. Opioids’ effect on bones is another reason you’re more prone to injury.Long term use of opioids is linked with an increased risk for fractures and osteoporosis(5).
  • Opioids impact your mood. Opioids affect how you feel, causing rapid mood swings, feelings of euphoria, and even anxiety or depression with long-term use(6). You may not feel the same joy with usual activities or feel motivated to move your body in the same ways you once did.

What to do if you’re an athlete who’s prescribed opioids

If you’re injured and are exploring your options for pain relief, here’s what to consider:

  • Discuss other options. Just because you’ve been prescribed opioids for pain relief doesn’t mean they’re your only option. Talk about alternative pain relief methods with your healthcare provider. Ice/heat therapy, physical therapy, rest, and over-the-counter pain relievers may be enough to get you by until you recover.
  • Be honest with your doctor about substance abuse risk. If you have concerns about developing a substance abuse disorder, be honest with your healthcare provider. Addiction tends to run in families, so be transparent if you have a family history of drug abuse or if you’ve personally struggled with addiction in the past.
  • Limit your activities while taking painkillers. If you must take prescribed opioids, be safe about your activity levels. Avoid high intensity exercise and opt for activities such as walking instead of running. Stick to flat, well-lit areas for short amounts of time and try to stay around a friend or family member if you can.
  • Take only as directed. If opioids feel like your only option for pain relief, take them only as directed. Don’t take more than prescribed each day, avoid activities as instructed by your doctor and pharmacy, and never share them with anyone else.

Opioids have a profound effect on how our body moves and functions. If you’re an athlete or fitness lover, keep these tips in mind the next time you recover from any type of injury.

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