Opioid addiction is a problem for athletes, and Pennsylvania has a plan
March 16, 2017 3:35 PM
Toby Talbot/Associated Press
The Pennsylvania Orthopedic Society released new guidelines for the prescription of opioids.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gov. Tom Wolf, flanked by Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris and some of the leading doctors in the state, announced new guidelines Thursday meant to combat the number of overdose deaths from opioids that continue to escalate across the state.
“This is a really important issue,” Wolf said Thursday at a news conference at UPMC Montefiore, spelling out the Pennsylvania Orthopedic Society’s guidelines for opioid prescriptions. “I’m not sure there is anyone in Pennsylvania who hasn’t known someone with an opioid addiction.”
The new guidelines call for exercise, acupuncture and non-opioid pain medicine to treat pain. In sports medicine and athletics, opioids are not to be prescribed for chronic pain. When they are prescribed for acute pain, it should be for short-term use.
The guidelines also say that if an athlete with an injury painful enough to consider an opioid medication to be considered, they should not be considered eligible to return to play, especially an adolescent or amateur athlete.
Wolf noted more than 3,500 people died of drug overdoses in the state in 2015, a sharp increase from nearly 2,500 in 2015. The statistics for 2016 are not yet available, but another increase is expected.
In Allegheny County, there were 414 overdose deaths in 2015, and the yet-to-be-released statistics for 2016 are predicted to be even worse, said Rachel Levine, physician general for the state.
The overdose statistics are the reason Harris is so involved in the mission to fight opioid addiction. In the past six months two of his friends lost children from drug overdoses.
“I’m just in shock at that because I never would have thought it would affect these families,” said Harris, a former Steelers running back. “I’m saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we all think this is far from us. It’s not people we know.’ That’s not the case.”
He said education and outreach are important. “This is affecting everyone everywhere, and all of us have to be concerned.”
Officials hope the new guidelines for prescribing opioids will reduce the number of addicted people and overdose deaths that result from prescription painkillers. The guidelines, which can be viewed at www.health.pa.gov, are recommendations for orthopedic surgeons but are not required to be followed.
“It’s vital to distinguish between chronic and acute pain,” said Patrick Smith, a spine surgeon at UPMC Margaret and president of the Pennsylvania Orthopedic Society. “Orthopedic patients suffer acute pain. Surgeons have been prescribers of opioid medicines. We have to do it in a way that provides relief but is safe.
“We want to do it at a more thoughtful and a more thought-out way with more attention. The acute injury and what we’re talking about is putting expectations together as well as other medications that can help us treat these patients differently than we have in the past 20 years.”
Levine called for an opioid stewardship among doctors. She said doctors have to prescribe opioids very carefully and must reduce the amount of opioids patients take.
“Opioids are very important medicines, but they can be overutilized,” she said. “There are too many people with minor injuries who are getting longer prescriptions for opioids. We have student-athletes who are getting longer prescriptions for opioids.”
The new guidelines also come in the wake of a class-action lawsuit filed against 32 NFL teams for their alleged misuse of painkillers, including opioids. Former Steelers offensive lineman Jeff Hartings recently told the Post-Gazette that his use of painkillers was the reason he retired after 11 seasons in the NFL.
The guidelines call for athletic programs to develop a written policy on opioids, following a recommendation from the NCAA. And physicians who travel with teams to different states should be aware of and comply with all applicable federal and state laws regarding the prescription of opioids, which was one of the main allegations of the class-action suit.
The more judicious approach to prescribing painkillers is viewed as the first step in helping decrease the escalating death and abuse statistics from opioid addiction.
“It’s really difficult to say when we’ll see a drop,” Smith said. “We hope in the near future, but I think it’s difficult to say when the impact will take place. The crisis is rather significant. We do hope these guidelines become very popular and we start to see some changes soon.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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