March 01, 2019

DEA Omaha Division encourages awareness of prescription medication abuse

OMAHA, Neb. –   With approximately eight million students participating in high school sports nationwide, it’s an unfortunate reality that some of these athletes will face an injury during their career.  While rest, ice, compression and elevation may help with minor injuries, events such as torn ACL’s and broken bones often call for increased measures including surgery and prescription pain medication.  As the number of opioid overdose deaths continues to rise each year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Omaha Division is working with coaches to promote awareness of the dangers of drug abuse and addiction to prescribed medications.


Synthetic opioids are highly potent, man-made drugs that mimic naturally occurring opioids like morphine and codeine.  They include legal prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone (Percocet®, OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), hydromorphone (Dilaudid ®) and oxymorphone (Opana ®).  According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in America, prescription drugs are the second-most commonly abused substance after marijuana.  In 2017, 70,237 people died from a drug overdose with nearly 60 percent of these deaths attributed to synthetic opioids. This number marked a 45 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths in a one year span. Notably, there’s a significant jump in prescription overdose deaths between children 0-14, with 83 deaths, compared to 3,705 deaths in 15-24 year olds in 2017.


Using medication in a way other than intended or without a prescription results in prescription misuse.  In 2016, an estimated 239,000 adolescents age 12-17 were misusing pain relievers according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. As injured student-athletes become eager to return to competition they look for quick ways to relieve pain and hold a belief that prescription medication is safe because it’s been prescribed by a doctor. The top three abused prescription medications in high schools across the nation are Vicodin, Adderall and tranquilizers.


“There’s a danger in the belief that just because a medication is prescribed, it’s safe,” Special Agent in Charge Richard Salter said. “Prescriptions should be taken exactly as prescribed and should only be taken by the person for whom the prescription is written. It happens all too often where one athlete has been prescribed a pain reliever and when his or her buddy complains of some undiagnosed pain, the friend hands over some of their own prescription. It’s a dangerous thing to do.  There’s really no telling how that medication will affect the person. It could lead to addiction or worse, it could lead to death.”


Across the Omaha Division, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, opioid overdose deaths increased nine percent between 2016 and 2017.  Four out of the five states in the Division saw an increase in deaths, with Nebraska noting the largest jump at 27 percent. 


“In addition to the potential misuse of prescribed medications, coaches, parents and student-athletes should be aware of the dangers of counterfeit pain killers and anti-anxiety medications,” Salter said.  “More often than not, these counterfeit pills, which are made to look identical to legitimate pharmaceutical pills, are manufactured by drug cartels in Mexico and independent traffickers in the United States.  These counterfeit pills often contain various forms of fentanyl which is deadly in microgram, or salt grain sized, amounts.”


Coaches who know of student-athletes prescribed pain medication should be on the lookout for abnormal behavior. Take note if a student suddenly starts missing classes or if their grades drop.  Physical signs like lack of energy or motivation or even a lack of interest in clothing or appearance could be cause for concern. Watch for changes in behavior, if a student makes excessive attempts to be alone, or if the student is no longer friends with childhood friends or acts secretive about spending time with new friends. Coaches spend a lot of time with student-athletes and changes will become apparent if an effort is made to take notice. 


Every day across the nation, 46 people die from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Taking just a few minutes to talk with student-athletes about the potential dangers of prescription medication or taking the time to notice abnormal behavior could mean the difference between a 17 year old who recovers from an injury and returns to sports and a student who slowly slips down the path of addiction.


For more information on opioid abuse and awareness, visit the DEA website and visit the “What We Do” tab.  To request a DEA presentation or publications on opioids, contact Community Outreach Specialist Erin Payne at 402-964-7986 or email her at

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