Athletes and Drug Addiction

Athletes may use or misuse both prescription and illicit drugs for various reasons. Regardless of the reasons why, athletes who misuse drugs can experience serious long-term health and/or life effects, such as legal problems, bans from a sport, or even overdose.

Why Do Athletes Use Drugs?

Athletes may use drugs for several reasons and not all are considered to be misuse. There are circumstances where an athlete may be prescribed a drug for a specific reason. But, if they begin to use a drug more than originally prescribed, more often, or if they use another person’s prescription, it would be considered misuse.

A few reasons why athletes may misuse prescription or illicit drugs is to:2

  • Improve athletic performance. Athletes may turn to drugs such as steroids to gain an edge on the competition. This is known as doping and is widespread across different sports, ages, and levels of competition.
  • Cope with mental illness. Athletes often receive treatment for physical injuries. But they are less likely to receive mental health treatment. Some athletes may use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
  • Deal with pressure. Athletes often face a significant amount of pressure on and off the field. They may face pressure to win, improve their performance, or quickly recover from an injury. To cope with this pressure, some athletes may take drugs.
  • Treat physical injuries. Athletes who suffer physical injuries may use drugs like prescription opioids and marijuana, to deal with pain.3 For some athletes, addiction starts when they are prescribed painkillers for an injury. Over time, they may begin to misuse their prescriptions—eventually becoming both physically and psychologically dependent on these medications.
  • Cope with retirement. Athletes may be faced with retirement much earlier than other careers. Leaving the game can be a difficult transition for athletes who are not prepared to retire and miss the thrill of competition. Drugs and alcohol may be a way of managing this stress.
  • Deal with peer pressure. Drug abuse is common in athletics, with an estimated 67% of bodybuilders using steroids, 52% of professional football players using opioids, and up to 93% of college athletes using alcohol. Some athletes use drugs or alcohol merely to fit in.

Types of Drugs Athletes Use

Athletes may use a variety of drugs, such as performance-enhancing drugs, stimulants, and prescription and non-prescription opioids, to improve their performance, manage pain or injury, and deal with the stress of athletics.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

  • Anabolic steroids. The human body naturally produces anabolic steroids in the form of testosterone, which aids muscle-building. Athletes may use high doses of anabolic steroids to increase muscle size, work out harder, and recover more quickly from workouts.4
  • Androstenedione (Andro). Andro is a prescription drug that can be used illegally by athletes hoping to increase certain male sex characteristics.4
  • Human growth hormone (HGH). Athletes may use HGH to increase muscle mass and improve performance. The injectable drug is only available as a prescription but is regularly bought and sold illegally, or misused.20
  • Diuretics. Athletes may use drugs to lose weight or to pass a drug test.2 Diuretics work by altering the body’s fluid and electrolyte levels. They are popular among sports that support strict weight control, such as boxing and wrestling.
  • Erythropoietin. This drug increases the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes) and hemoglobin, which can increase oxygen delivery to the muscles. Athletes may take erythropoietin to increase endurance and aerobic power.21

Painkillers and Prescription Drugs

Prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, are painkillers intended for use in managing relatively severe pain. In large enough doses, users may experience a high that includes euphoria and relaxation in addition to pain relief.1, 22

Although some athletes may begin taking opioid painkillers with a prescription, many others use them non-medically—either more than their prescribed instructions or without a prescription at all. Even those taking them according to prescribed instructions can develop tolerance or physiological dependence.

Tolerance occurs when a person doesn’t feel the same effects they did when first taking the drug, leading them to use more or in higher doses.23 Dependence is when a person experiences withdrawal symptoms if they stop using a substance or drastically reduce the dose.23

Stimulants

Stimulants can be prescription or illicit and are known for speeding up systems within the body.25 Prescription stimulants are often prescribed to treat conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).24 

People often take stimulants to improve performance, stay alert, feel exhilarated, or stay awake longer.25

  • Amphetamines and methamphetamine. Athletes may use amphetamines, including the illegal drug methamphetamine, to enhance alertness and performance. Amphetamines can make users feel energized, experience an increase in self-confidence, and decrease appetite. Because of this latter effect, some athletes, such as boxers or wrestlers, may use amphetamines to lose weight.5, 25
  • Adderall is a prescription stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Research suggests it may improve alertness, focus, and reaction time.2, 24 Like other stimulants, athletes may use Adderall to enhance performance, control fatigue, and lose weight.

Other Drugs

  • Alcohol. A significant number of athletes drink alcohol.2 Perhaps surprisingly, some athletes drink alcohol prior to a game or competition to reduce anxiety and thereby enhance performance. There is little evidence that this works, however. Consistent alcohol use is more likely to lead to other issues that hinder performance.
  • Marijuana. Athletes may use marijuana for euphoria and relaxation. Some athletes may also turn to marijuana to treat pain.3
  • Cocaine. Like other stimulants, athletes may use cocaine to improve their endurance and performance, increase focus, decrease fatigue, and lose weight.2 Cocaine causes users to experience a brief euphoria, followed by a crash. Users may “binge” on the drug repeatedly to prolong the high.1

How Many Athletes Use Drugs?

Drug and alcohol use is widespread among high school, college, and professional athletes. The following statistics demonstrate drug use in athletes:2

  • Anabolic steroids. Between 0.7% and 6.6% of high school athletes and between 0.2% and 5% of male college athletes have used steroids in the past year. Around 9% of professional football players and 67% of competitive bodybuilders have used steroids at some point in their careers.
  • Alcohol. Between 71% and 93% of college athletes drank alcohol in the past year.
  • Marijuana. Among college athletes, 28% used cannabis in the past year.
  • Opioids. Between 52% and 71% of professional football players have used opioids at some point in their careers.
  • Stimulants. Around 3% of college athletes report using stimulants.

Effects of Drug Use in Athletes

Misusing drugs can have potentially serious or even life-threatening consequences.1 For athletes, they may experience the following negative effects:

  • Suspensions and bans. Many professional athletic organizations have strict rules against using performance-enhancing and recreational drugs. Athletes who violate these rules may face serious consequences, such as suspensions or bans. In some cases, prior titles, medals, or prizes may be revoked. Professional athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Steve Howe, and Brett Favre have suffered these consequences.
  • Job loss and/or early retirement. Drug abuse can impair an athlete’s ability to focus and otherwise negatively affect an athlete’s performance. Certain drugs will give rise to several side effects and may be associated with performance-hindering withdrawal symptoms. Some athletes may be forced into early retirement because of the negative effects of their drug use.
  • Health problems. Taking anabolic steroids can result in liver and kidney damage, hypertension, and heart problems. Mental effects can include depression, anger, and violence. Men may also experience impotence, infertility, and development of certain female sexual characteristics (e.g., enlargement of breast tissue), while women may experience menstruation changes and development of masculine features.4, 5
  • Andro use can lead to side effects such as decreased sperm production, shrinking of the testicles, and increased breast size in men. In women, it can lead to the development of certain masculine qualities, such as deeper voice and male-pattern hair loss. For both men and women, taking the drug may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.4
  • Human growth hormone (HGH) use is associated with joint pain, fluid retention, muscle weakness, and vision problems. It can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, high cholesterol, hypertension, enlarged heart, and diabetes.4
  • Excessive diuretic use can cause dehydration, muscle cramps, dizziness, rash, gout, potassium deficiency, poor balance and coordination, low blood pressure, and even death.4
  • Erythropoietin can present risks including heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolism.21
  • Alcohol use may impair problem-solving ability, memory, learning, and coordination and can lead to liver and neurological damage.1, 6
  • Marijuana can negatively impact short-term memory, learning, balance, coordination, and ability to focus.1, 3
  • Short-term effects of amphetamine use include headaches, convulsions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Long-term effects may include permanent nerve damage and death.5
  • Cocaine can cause damage to the heart, respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems.1
  • Opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers have a high risk of overdose. When these drugs are injected, the user’s risk for contracting infectious diseases increases significantly.
  • The misuse of certain drugs, such as opioids and stimulants, can lead to addiction.1, 6 Addiction is a brain disease that involves compulsive drug use despite negative consequences.1 Athletes who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may have a difficult time quitting without professional treatment.
  • Amphetamine use may lead to fatal hemorrhagic stroke or heart attack.5 Abusing opioids like heroin or prescription drugs also carries a high risk of lethal overdose. College basketball player Len Bias and professional hockey player Derek Boogaard both died of fatal drug overdoses.

Recovery Programs for Athletes

Athletes who struggle with addiction issues may seek the help of several different types of recovery programs:

  • Inpatient treatment programs are those in which a person lives in a facility for the duration of treatment. Length of treatment depends on the level of care. Services offered can include intensive group, individual, and family therapy, detox, aftercare, medication management, and various amenities.
  • Outpatient treatment programs offer therapy for several hours per week, with participants returning to their own homes or another residence during non-treatment hours. The intensity of therapy depends on the specific program. Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) typically offer treatment for 2 to 4 days per week, while partial hospitalization programs (PHP) may offer treatment for 5 or more days per week.
  • Twelve-step programs can help people develop connections with other people in recovery and find support throughout the recovery process. Some 12-step programs are based on the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, while others offer 12-step facilitation that isn’t part of an anon- group.

Addiction treatment programs typically offer various types of therapies that can be effective in helping athletes recover from substance use disorders:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy for treating addiction that helps people identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors.7 Therapists help people understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and teach relapse prevention and coping skills.
  • Motivational interviewing helps people in early recovery work through their ambivalence about change.7 Athletes may come to treatment with conflicting feelings about their drug use (which is known as the “pre-contemplation” stage of change).2 The goal is to help people recognize the consequences of their use, develop motivation to quit, and begin taking steps toward change.

American Addiction Centers has helped thousands recover from addiction and we can help you or your loved one too. Check your insurance to find out instantly if your insurance provider may be able to cover all or part of the cost of rehab and associated therapies. You can also sign up 24/7 text support for addiction questions at your convenience.

Co-occurring Disorders

Athletes with substance use issues may also struggle with co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Drugs and alcohol may be a way of coping with a pre-existing mental health condition.2

Specialized treatment programs are available to help people struggling with such dual diagnosis issues. These programs offer both addiction- and mental health-targeted therapeutic interventions, including counseling, psychiatric medications, and support groups led by trained professionals.

In addition to behavioral therapy, there are several FDA-approved medications used to help people recovering from opioid and alcohol addictions:19

  • Methadone is a synthetic opioid agonist used to treat opioid addiction. It helps to prevent withdrawal symptoms, decrease cravings, and block the effects of other opioids. Methadone is only available in specially licensed clinics.19
  • Buprenorphine is a synthetic partial opioid agonist that is used to treat opioid addiction. The medication helps prevent withdrawal symptoms without producing a pleasurable high. Specially licensed practitioners can prescribe buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid dependence.19
  • Acamprosate, or Campral, is a medication used to treat alcohol addiction. It can help relieve symptoms of prolonged withdrawal, such as anxiety, depressed mood, and insomnia.8
  • Disulfiram, or Antabuse, is a treatment for alcohol addiction that produces an unpleasant response when alcohol is consumed. It can help deter people from drinking, especially in high-risk situations.26
  • Naltrexone is an opioid receptor antagonist used in the management of opioid dependence. Naltrexone works by blocking some of the rewards associated with the use of both substances. Its use requires a significant amount of motivation from the person in recovery, especially if daily dosing is involved. An extended-release intramuscular injection form of naltrexone is available (Vivitrol).19

Athletes may turn to drugs to cope with chronic pain. Finding alternative treatments for pain may help support recovery, such as:

  • Acupuncture.
  • Massage.
  • Yoga.

List of Athletes Who Misused Drugs

Unfortunately, many athletes have misused drugs and struggled with various risks and consequences:

  • Lamar Odom, a former professional basketball player has struggled with crack cocaine and marijuana addictions. In 2015, he suffered a near-fatal overdose.9
  • John Daly, a professional golfer, has struggled with addictions to alcohol and gambling.10
  • MLB player Darryl Strawberry suffered from cocaine addiction. His addiction led to 3 suspensions during his baseball career and several arrests.11 Strawberry is currently sober and has opened several rehab centers to help other addicts.12
  • Lance Armstrong, a former professional cyclist, was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. After not contesting the charges, Armstrong was stripped of his titles and banned from future competitions.13
  • Lawrence Taylor, a former NFL player, misused alcohol, and cocaine during his time with the New York Giants. After retirement, Taylor continued to struggle with cocaine addiction.14
  • Sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs at the 1988 Olympics and was stripped of his gold medal.15
  • Josh Hamilton, a professional baseball player, has suffered from addictions to alcohol and cocaine throughout his career.16
  • Professional golfer Tiger Woods was arrested in 2017 for driving under the influence. He admitted to abusing prescription medications and immediately entered treatment. He also sought treatment for drug and sex addictions in the past.17
  • Former NFL player Brett Favre admitted to abusing prescription opioids during his career and was temporarily banned from the NFL in 1996 for alcohol use. Favre also experienced a seizure because of his drug use.18

Whether you’re an athlete or not, addiction can impact your life and the lives of your loved ones. If you’re ready to get help for drug or alcohol addiction, contact the caring admissions navigators at American Addiction Centers (AAC). They are available 24/7 to take your confidential call at so you can learn more about treatment options at AAC facilities, check your insurance coverage, and get valuable addiction resources.

Additional Resources on Drug and Alcohol Treatment