Playing team sports in high school may not influence whether or not teens use heroin or abuse prescription drugs, a U.S. study suggests.
Researchers examined data from more than 21,000 high school seniors surveyed between 2006 and 2014.
Overall, they didn't find any differences in prescription or illegal opioid use between students who played at least one competitive sport and non-athletes. The study did, however, find an increased risk with three sports: hockey, weightlifting and wrestling.
"We already knew from several of my previous studies that while athletes in general are at a lower risk of opioid use, athletes involved in high contact sports like wrestling, football, ice hockey, and lacrosse are at a greater risk of misusing prescription opioids," said lead study author Philip Veliz of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"The current study confirms that athletes in certain high contact sports are at a greater risk of misusing opioids," Veliz added by email.
The study participants answered survey questions that touched on a variety of factors that can influence drug use, including grades, social life, employment, family characteristics, cigarette and alcohol use, and sports participation.
The most common sports played by teens in the study included basketball, football, baseball, soccer, track and weightlifting. About 31 percent of participants didn't play any sports at all, while 30 percent played one sport, 18 percent competed in two sports and 21 percent participated in at least three different sports.
To assess opioid use, surveys also asked whether teens had tried heroin in the past year with or without a needle, or tried narcotics other than heroin such as opium or codeine without a doctor's prescription.
About 8 percent of teens surveyed said they had taken prescription opioids in the past year without getting a prescription from a doctor.
Slightly less than 1 percent of teens said they had tried heroin in the past year, and an even smaller fraction of adolescents reported using both heroin and opioids that didn't come from a doctor.
While most responses were similar for athletes and students who didn't play sports, there were some exceptions, researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
With prescription opioids, tennis players were 25 percent less likely than non-athletes to use these medicines without a prescription, the study found. But weightlifters were 22 percent more likely to take opioids without a prescription and wrestlers were 33 percent more likely.
Heroin use, meanwhile, was three times more common among ice hockey players than non-athletes and 81 percent more likely among weightlifters.
Compared with teens who didn't participate in sports, hockey players were nearly four times more likely to use both heroin and prescription painkillers, while weightlifters were nearly twice as likely to use both types of opioids.
The study is observational, and doesn't prove whether or not sports participation in general or certain athletic pursuits in particular influence the odds of teen drug use, the authors note. Researchers also lacked data on sports injuries, which might influence whether teens tried painkillers with or without a prescription.
"High contact sports, particularly for males, have some of the highest injury rates at the interscholastic level excluding weightlifting," Veliz said.
"Injuries are bound to happen, and these athletes may be self-medicating to recover from injuries in order to get back on the playing field as soon as possible," Veliz added. "Accordingly, these athletes may develop a dependence on opioids that can eventually lead to heroin use."
Among other things, parents can help prevent misuse of opioids by making sure teen athletes get close supervision after injuries that require painkiller prescriptions and disposing of any unused medications, Veliz said.