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There is an old saying that goes like this: When you find yourself in a hole, your first step is to stop digging.
This thinking makes a lot of sense to me as I survey the nation's opioid epidemic. At this moment, we can project that five dozen people will die today from an opioid overdose, while others will die from heroin use that began with opioid abuse. The annual death toll from overdoses is more than 52,000 making it the number one cause of unintentional death in the United States, exceeding car crashes and falls.
Looking at these staggering numbers, one thing is clear: We need to stop bringing opioids into the lives of people who don't need them, and doctors, parents, patients, coaches and trainers all can contribute to this effort.
Opioid use and abuse is happening at all levels, touching professional athletes and high schoolers alike. We are seeing opioids prescribed for an injury and leading to an addiction. I know. That is what happened to me.
Over my NBA career, I suffered numerous injuries and underwent seven surgeries; those procedures introduced me to prescription painkillers, and I eventually became addicted. My low point came in 2014, when I was arrested for retail theft. I talked about this in Sports Illustrated in June, and in that article I focused on the scope of the problem and the steps needed to help the thousands of people who have fallen into the same canyon that took me.
But there are steps that can be taken to keep people out of this canyon, and some of them are tied to sports-related injuries. Too often, athletes are hurt playing a sport they love — a sport they desperately want to return to — and their treatment includes a prescription for Percocet, Vicodin or OxyContin. Once those drugs are dispensed, they can be abused — sometimes by the athletes, sometimes by family members and sometimes by friends. Addiction, and the horrors that can follow, is made more likely with the mere availability of these opioids.
How can this be addressed? Doctors can scale back their prescribing of opioids and embrace the use of non-addictive medications for pain. Coaches and trainers can counsel athletes about the need for patience when working their way back from injuries. Players and parents can get the information they need about medications and their associated risks, and they can choose treatments that heal the player without harming the person.
Thursday, Aug. 31, is International Opioid Awareness Day, and I will be at the National Safety Council headquarters outside Chicago. I will be part of a panel of speakers that will discuss government policies, the roles of businesses and law enforcement, and the real life impact of opioid abuse and overdoses on people and families.
In my remarks, I will encourage everyone connected to the opioid epidemic to do what they can to stop digging the hole and reduce the number of opioid prescriptions being distributed. If we can stop making opioids a solution for a small problem and the cause of a bigger problem, then we might eventually see the opioid epidemic end in our nation.