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Drug Use in Sports: The Link Between Athletes & Addiction

Drug Abuse in Athletes

The occurrence of drug use in sports isn’t new, as many athletes’ addictions have been exposed at all levels of competition. Sports and an athletic lifestyle can lead to substance abuse for various reasons, including pressure to perform, performance enhancement, injuries, physical pain, and depression from retirement. Performance-enhancing drug abuse among athletes (also known as “doping”) is common despite the many restrictions set in place by athlete associations and leagues. Our Texas recovery center is looking into athletes and addiction, what the most commonly abused substances in sports are, and the sports in which drug abuse is most common. 

What Are the Most Common Drugs Used in Sports? 

Regardless of age, many athletes feel the need to do whatever it takes to be the best in their team or level, even if it includes drug use. With the pressure to succeed from both internal and external sources, all types of athletic competitions have felt the sting of drug abuse. In addition to pressure to perform at a certain level, other contributing factors to drug abuse in professional sports include stress, injuries, and a “do whatever it takes” sports culture. 

The most commonly abused drugs in sports are performance-enhancing. These drugs include anabolic steroids and androgenic steroids like: 

  • Androstenediol 
  • Androstenedione 
  • Danazol 
  • Nandrolone 
  • Oxandrolone 
  • Stanozolol 
  • Testosterone 
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) 

Anabolic steroids (performance drugs) work by stimulating muscle tissue growth, especially when a person physically trains, by mimicking the effects of a naturally produced hormone called testosterone. Steroids mimic hormones by binding to cells and triggering changes in bodily functions. Since increased testosterone levels can contribute to muscle growth, these steroids will mimic its effects on the body. 

However, while steroids may aid athletes in bulking up, they can also produce side effects like acne, high blood pressure, liver problems, decreased fertility, kidney failure, and heart disease. Many athletes also abuse alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, and stimulants, which can cause severe side effects as well.  

Individuals who abuse drugs for a long time and then attempt to stop using them will experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are physical reactions to a sudden reduction in a substance as well as sudden changes in the chemical balance in the brain. For instance, drugs that stimulate dopamine – such as cocaine and meth – may lead to depressive withdrawal symptoms.  

These individuals can benefit from medically monitored detox, like the one we offer at Banyan Treatment Centers Texas, where they can receive 24-hour care and medical attention. 

Athletes Drug Abuse Statistics 

Although no sport is immune to drug abuse, sports in which drug abuse is most common include cycling, gymnastics, swimming, weightlifting, and even skateboarding. In fact, one of Banyan Treatment Centers' recovery advocates is Brandon Novak, a professional skateboarder and actor who struggled with heroin abuse and sought heroin treatment at one of our facilities. 

Basketball, football, and soccer leagues have also had their fair share of doping incidents. Luke Wollet, an up-and-coming football star whose career was cut short by drug abuse, also recovered with our help. It’s not only the need to perform that leads athletes to abuse drugs, but the “work hard, play hard” mentality can also encourage heavy drinking and illicit drug use off the field. 

Below are some general statistics regarding athletes and drug abuse from a study conducted in 2014.1 

  • 75%-93% of male athletes reported alcohol abuse that year 
  • 71%-93% of female athletes reported alcohol abuse that year 
  • 67% of competitive powerlifters abused anabolic steroids in that year 
  • 28% of college athletes used anabolic steroids in that year 
  • 28% of college athletes smoked or used cannabis in that year 
  • 71% of professional football players abused opiates at some point in their career 

Why Do Athletes Use Drugs? 

Substance abuse in athletes occurs for several reasons. Some might have a genetic predisposition to addiction – such as players who had a loved one with a drug or alcohol use disorder – while others have an underlying substance use disorder. However, many athletes begin using drugs in sports after they’ve gone pro.  

Considering the damage substance abuse can wreak on the body, why do athletes abuse drugs? Some common reasons include:  

  • To enhance their performance: Professional athletes are under constant pressure to outperform their peers and earn their spots on their teams. This desire to perform better and be the best is often a catalyst for the misuse of performance-enhancing drugs.  
  • To cope with injuries: Injuries are bound to occur in professional sports, and some athletes will use drugs to speed up the recovery process. However, this can quickly contribute to an addiction.  
  • To cope with depression: Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are common among athletes, who may abuse drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.  
  • More money and accessibility: The fame and money that comes with being a professional athlete also make drugs more attainable. Even college athletes have easier access to drugs.  
  • History of addiction: An athlete’s personal or family history of substance abuse can also increase their risk of developing a substance use disorder. Losses earlier in life or a family history of addiction combined with the pressures of professional sports can lead to drug or alcohol abuse, as well.  

Signs of Drug Abuse in Athletes 

Risk factors for substance abuse in athletes include anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Being able to recognize the signs of drug use in athletes is essential in getting them the drug or alcohol treatment they need to get sober. 

Some common signs and symptoms of substance abuse in athletes include: 

  • Increased aggression 
  • Quickly forming and noticeable physical changes 
  • Decreased performance in school 
  • Increased appetite 
  • Changes in friend groups (may spend more time with people who also use drugs or alcohol) 
  • Extreme dedication to the sport or training to the point of neglect 
  • Neglecting their health, families, school work, or other obligations 
  • Partying often or going to clubs frequently 
  • Being late to practice, training, or games 

The side effects related to professional athletes and drug abuse may vary depending on the substance in question. Abuse of certain substances may be more difficult to recognize than others. How addiction happens involves a progression in drug misuse. If you recognize any of these signs of addiction or substance abuse in your loved one, get help immediately. 

Our facility offers a wide range of Texas drug and alcohol treatments that address a multitude of substance use disorders. If you’re interested in our addiction services for yourself or someone you know, call Banyan Treatment Centers now at 888-280-4763 to speak to a team member or give us your contact information so we can give you a call. 

Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.