On the surface, it might seem like a good thing that student athletes are getting bigger and stronger, and that they train year-round.
But those trends raise the risk of frequent injuries. With injuries come pain, surgery and painkillers.
That’s why sports trainers like Julie Alexander are getting more savvy about helping athletes avoid painkiller addiction.
Alexander, in her 27th year as an athletic trainer at St. Cloud State University, watches athletes carefully when a painkiller is prescribed. If she sees possible abuse, she will intervene. She estimates that in her time at St. Cloud State, she has been a part of “at least a dozen or more” interventions.
“We have a heightened awareness in the last 10 years about the use of narcotic painkillers after surgery and how much physicians will give out,” Alexander said.
Doctors and training staff talk to the athletes before any procedure about the dangers involved with painkillers, Alexander said
Rarely do physicians extend prescriptions beyond the typical five days after surgery. A red flag for her: When an athlete says they need more because they can’t sleep at night.
Alexander said that surgery is an injury unto itself in that there is tissue damage involved, so she advises that athletes do use painkillers when they are prescribed.
“You want to stay ahead of that pain the first three-four days after surgery,” she said. “I tell them that as soon as you don’t feel you need those, get back to just over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen or Aleve for pain.”
Trainers are at all of the practices and games for the teams at St. Cloud State and work closely with the athletes when they are injured, so they’re in a position to notice changes in behavior and discuss medical situations.
“We get pretty close with those athletes, and we know their personalities and when things are off,” Alexander said.
Trainers might notice red flags such as euphoria or depression.
“Those changes are something athletic trainers are uniquely positioned to see because we see them every day.”
A slip in performance in a sport can be another indicator.
Teammates, too, are expected to report concerns about painkiller problems.
If enough warning flags go up for the trainers, a meeting will be set up with the athlete.
“It’s very similar to an intervention with any other drug or alcohol problem,” Alexander said. “We get together and there will be one administrator, the coach and the trainer meet and talk about it and there’s usually a small group intervention. We will say that we have a concern that something is going on and you’re abusing your pain medication.
“We’ll intervene and see what the athlete says and do they get totally defensive. The coach has the power to say that they won’t even practice until we get this figured out and that can be with anything including things like an eating disorder or mental illness. We have to tread lightly. Once you do, you go over the counseling services or maybe a drug rehab program or to be evaluated.”