High school athletes in contact sports more likely to misuse prescription stimulants as adults

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When it comes to concerns related to contact sports, most of the conversation revolves around CTE and head injuries. However, new research by a team at the University of Michigan finds high school seniors who play contact sports are nearly 50 percent more likely to misuse prescription stimulants after graduation.

Similarly, all 12th graders who play any sports, contact or non-contact, were more likely than non-athletes to misuse prescription stimulants in their 20s. It’s also worth noting that seniors participating in non-contact sports were less likely to misuse prescription opioids in their 20s, but more likely to misuse stimulants than non-athletes, according to the study.

Researchers say this is the first ever national project to analyze how high school sports may or may not influence prescription drug misuse from ages 17-18 to ages 27-28. In all, the collected data encompassed 4,772 U.S. 12th graders between 2006 and 2017 from the Monitoring the Future study. The team tracked each student for a decade.

High-contact sports examined by researchers included wrestling, lacrosse, football, and ice hockey. Semi-contact sports included baseball, basketball, field hockey, and soccer. Finally, the non-contact sport category featured cross country, gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, weightlifting, tennis, and track.

Notably, roughly 31 percent of all the seniors admitted to misusing prescription drugs at least once between ages 17 and 18. Regarding contact sport participation, 11 percent of 12th graders indicated past-year prescription stimulant misuse, with that figure jumping to about 18 percent by age 22.

“Misuse of prescription opioids was higher for respondents who participated in contact sports during the 12th grade. However, participation in this type of sport was not associated with initiating this type of drug use in young adulthood,” says lead author Philip Veliz from the U-M School of Nursing, in a university release.

What drives students to take stimulants?

Prof. Veliz explains that prescription drug misuse of opioids likely dropped among adolescents during the study period because opioids were becoming far less available at the time. Moreover, information about the risks associated with using opioids was becoming more public. Prescription drug misuse of both opioids and stimulants has fallen significantly among adolescents since 2010, Veliz adds.

“However, this study found that some types of former high school athletes are at greater risk of misusing these drugs and initiating them during early adulthood (between ages 19 and 21),” Prof. Veliz says.

The researcher admits it was surprising to observe that adolescents playing in non-contact sports had greater odds of misusing stimulants in their 20s in comparison to those who did not play a non-contact sport. Generally, non-contact sports tend to promote a “culture of self-control or an aversion toward physical harm,” but Prof. Veliz adds that doesn’t mean these athletes aren’t competitive.

Prior research finds people who play non-contact sports tend to have better academic results, and many see sports as a way to bolster their academic resume more than anything else. Students who use stimulants typically do so to boost their academic performance, so researchers speculate this may be the connection between non-contact sports players and stimulant misuse.

“The findings reinforce screening during adolescence as nearly one-in-three high school seniors engage in prescription drug misuse,” says senior study author Sean Esteban McCabe, director of DASH, the Center for the Study of Drug, Alcohol, Smoking, and Health in the U-M School of Nursing. “Increased prescription stimulant misuse following high school warrants ongoing monitoring during young adulthood, especially among athletes.”

The study is published in American Journal of Epidemiology.

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