Ahead of the Opioid Issue

February 10, 2017

Athletic trainers at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University have turned their focus to preventing injuries and treating them with conservative measures instead of prescription painkillers. By putting players through a range of assessments and movement screenings, athletic trainers can analyze the risk factors of each athlete. Then, they can address any potential problems, which saves time in the future by keeping athletes healthy and competing.

“The first thing we really believe in is preventative medicine,” Randy Cohen, ATC, DPT, the Associate Director of Athletics for CATS Medical Services at the University of Arizona and athletic trainer for the football team, told Cronkite News. “I think that’s the most important thing. If you can prevent problems from occurring, then you don’t have to deal with them when they occur.”

Unfortunately, injuries can’t always be prevented. When they did happen, it was common for athletic trainers in the past to simply numb the injury with a painkiller in order to get the athlete back to competing as quickly as possible. But the staffs at Arizona and Northern Arizona are trying to change this practice. They now look at opiates and painkillers as a last resort and recommend methods like icing, deep tissue massage, and electrical stimulation to manage pain. In addition, corrective and rehabilitative exercises, such as range-of-motion drills and gradual resistance training, are used to strengthen the injured area and the muscles that support it to prevent further injury.

“The effects of opiates on the nervous system could have negative effects on reaction time and sports-related skills,” said Northern Arizona Assistant Director of Sports Medicine Joshua Johnson, MS, LAT, ATC. “And because of the addictive nature of the drug, it’s really not safe for a student-athlete to be taking them on a consistent basis.”

Cohen agrees with Johnson, and he has encouraged his staff to move away from treating injuries with prescription drugs.

“We actually use a lot less prescription medication than we have in the past,” he said. “I’m a believer where if you need prescription medications to really be able to participate on the field, we’re doing something wrong in our prevention early on.”

With injury prevention an increasingly important part of an athletic trainer’s job, it is likely that more schools with start to focus more of their efforts toward this type of care and recognize the dangers of prescription painkillers.

“It’s less about acute injury care, and it’s more about what can we do upfront to prevent injuries from occurring to begin with,” Cohen said. “I think that is where athletic training is moving and going because I think it increases the level of care that we provide the student-athletes.”

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