The NIDA Blog Team
October 3 2016

We’ve noted that some athletes can be at high risk for misusing prescription opioid pain relievers to help them deal with pain related to sports injuries. (These are pills with brand names like Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet, and people can become addicted to them.)

So we’re glad to report that, if you’re a teen athlete, a recent study has found that you’re actually less likely to misuse prescription opioids than teens who don’t participate in sports or exercise regularly. It appears that those activities are protective factors for misusing opioids—including the illegal drug heroin, an opioid chemically related to prescription pain relievers.

That’s all pretty great to know. You may, however, be wondering: When it comes to misusing opioids, what is protective about sports and exercise?

Winning the game

First, let’s look at exactly what the study found. Researchers looked at responses from nearly 192,000 teens in NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey between 1997 and 2014. About half were eighth graders and nearly half were tenth graders.

  • About 11 percent of the non-athletes said they had misused opioids at some point, compared with about 8 percent of teens who participated in sports or exercise once a week and just under 7 percent of those who participated almost daily.
  • A little over 2 percent of non-athletes in the survey had used heroin at some point, compared to just 1 percent of those engaging in sports or exercise once a week or more.
  • Teens who exercised or played sports on a daily basis had a 26 percent lower risk of misusing opioids over their entire lifetime, and a 34 percent lower risk of using heroin in their lifetime.
  • The connection between sports participation and lower rates of opioid misuse and heroin use applied even to teen athletes in sports with a higher risk of injury, like football.

A natural high

As for why student athletes are less likely to misuse opioids, one reason the researchers mention is simply that the athletes are doing something they enjoy (physical activity). If you’re already getting a lot of satisfaction from a healthy activity, drugs may seem less appealing in comparison. Another factor might be the positive social interactions that come with participating in sports.

There are also causes you can’t see. The body produces its own natural opioids, called endorphins. When you engage in physical activity, your endorphins can cause a release of the chemical dopamine; as a result, you feel what some people call a “runner’s high.”

This feeling not only can make you want to stick with your exercise routine or sport; it also can reduce some of the aches and pains that come with a good workout—without the risks of addiction and death that can result from misusing prescription opioids.

So suit up, or hit the gym, or just go for a run. You’ll feel better, and if you keep at it, you may also be protecting yourself against opioid misuse.

Learn more: what’s the deadliest opioid?

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