Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., but that popularity may come at the cost of its fighters and their health. It’s no surprise that a sport that involves punching, kicking, and knocking the opponent out creates several types of injuries, and when those injuries and the accompanying pain need treatment – doctors often prescribe opiate painkillers. Let’s learn how opiate painkillers have affected MMA, including other reasons MMA fighters may be more at risk for addiction, and what can be done to lessen the prevalence of addiction in the sport.

The Modern Fighter

To become involved in MMA a fighter needs to have not only physical strength but an adrenaline-seeking and risk-taking attitude. It takes a special person to throw themselves in the octagon knowing there’s a reasonable likelihood they’re going to get punched in the face, but the same attitude that turns fighters to battle it out in the ring may also make fighters more predisposed to dependence. Risk-takers and adrenaline junkies, due to their nature, may be psychologically more prone to addition. While there are no direct numbers or concrete research between risk-taking, MMA, and addiction – fighters tend to check many of the boxes that make someone more likely to become addicted – and then there’s the physical component.

Opiates, Addiction, and the MMA

Any MMA fighter is likely to experience several types of injury during their career including serious injuries that warrant direct physician care. Doctors recommend over-the-counter painkillers for most injuries but prescribe opiate painkillers for more serious injury.

Because MMA fighters are much more likely to be prescribed opiate painkillers due to their susceptibility to serious injury, this small group has been hit harder by addiction than the general population. Notable fighters like Drew Fickett and Joe Riggs have struggled with dependence for several years while others like Shane Del Rosario and Shelby Walker paid the ultimate price and passed away due to drug-related incidents. The more times someone uses painkillers, the more likely they’ll get hooked. This isn’t the only physical component connecting MMA and addiction.  

CTE and Addiction

There’s been plenty in the news lately regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its negative impacts on sufferers. CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease found in athletes (and others) caused by repeated blows to the head. Those who participate in high-contact sports like MMA are much more likely to suffer from CTE than the general population.

Though research on CTE is new, loss of impulse control is one of the more common associated symptoms. Lowered inhibitions and poor impulse control can make sufferers more likely to participate in risk-taking behavior like drug use. Others may turn to self-medicating to help combat the depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms that are thought to accompany the illness. The combination of CTE, MMA, and opiates can be a deadly one. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for the sport.

Using MMA to Get Over Addiction

Many people are led down to the road to addiction due to MMA, but many who’ve never tried MMA are turning to the sport to help them treat their addiction. Exercise and finding hobbies are highly-recommended to those recovering from active addiction, and MMA activities provide an outlet for anyone in recovery to blow off steam and help raise their physical prowess. It’s an ironic twist, but the same thrill-seeking attitude that causes MMA participants to get hooked on opiates can be used by amateurs to combat their addiction.

Moving Forward

It’s necessary to be tough and prideful if you’re an MMA fighter, but that pride may be a reason that fighters in active addiction don’t seek treatment. If you can knock out one of the top fighters in the world, surely you can say no to a few pain pills, right?

MMA fighters may be tough, but they’re no different than anyone else suffering from addiction. Getting a fighter on the road to recovery can be especially difficult given their circumstances and mindset, but it can be done. If a fighter is reluctant to talk about his or her problem, it may take another fighter who’s experienced the same issues to connect to them. MMA fighters themselves must take certain precautions when meeting with a doctor after an injury, especially if they have a predisposition to addiction, or are recovering addicts. The only way MMA fighters can truly recover from an injury is telling doctors the truth.

MMA fighters are more susceptible to addiction, especially opiate addiction, than the general population due to thrill-seeking behaviors, the likelihood they’ll be prescribed opiate medication during their careers, the effects of head trauma, and more. Those participating in MMA should always take care around mood-altering substances, including doctor-prescribed opiates, to best achieve their goals. On the other side, if you’re in recovery and looking for a way to blow off some steam and get yourself in shape – MMA might be the outlet you need.

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