Throughout college and my 19-year NBA career, I experienced several injuries and underwent a total of 11 surgeries. I have dealt with multiple ankle surgeries, an abdominal surgery, knee surgeries – you name it, I’ve probably had it. However, I’ll be the first to admit that athletes often play through the pain and may even put off surgery or ignore an injury because they fear a lengthy recovery. Being a professional athlete comes with pressure – pressure to return to the court or field quickly, pressure to be there for your teammates and the fans, and pressure to have a successful career. I’m no stranger to this mindset. In my early years, I tried to play through injuries and mask the pain with short-term solutions, but I learned the hard way that untreated injuries can lead to even more pain and ultimately, surgery.
Some athletes are given various types of opioids to mask the pain of an injury instead of resting, listening to their bodies or undergoing a necessary procedure. While prescription opioids may help treat the pain in the short-term, they can be associated with harmful side effects, including the risk of dependence and addiction. With an average of 130 people dying from an opioid overdose each day, it’s imperative that everyone – athletes, trainers, coaches, weekend warriors, stay-at-home moms –consider alternatives to opioids for managing pain.
Despite there being effective non-opioid options available, opioids are still heavily relied upon to manage pain. A recent report found that patients receive an average of 82 opioid pills to help manage pain after surgery. The same report found that orthopedic patients are at an especially high risk for potential misuse following an operation. This is critically important information for athletes since many face injuries to their hips, knees and shoulders that are orthopedic in nature.
In my earlier surgeries, I often was prescribed large amounts of opioids to manage my pain. I didn’t like the side effects or how they made me feel, but I didn’t think other pain management options were available. In speaking with my doctors, I realized how dangerous and addictive opioids could be, so I opted to limit the amount I consumed. However, the conversation I had with my surgeon before my two most recent knee surgeries completely changed the game.
My doctor explained that he would be using a long-acting numbing medication during my surgery to manage pain that could possibly eliminate the need for opioids. I had never heard of a non-opioid option like this, but I was eager to have my pain managed with an alternative. This non-opioid option worked – I felt great in the days following surgery and did not need any opioids during my recovery. I’ve learned that many patients who choose a non-opioid option for surgery recover faster, have less pain and experience fewer side effects than when treated with opioids.
Over the years, I’ve become passionate about raising awareness of pain management alternatives, including non-opioid options. I joined Choices Matter, a program dedicated to educating and empowering patients to discuss postsurgical pain management options with their doctors, to help spread this message. I want people to know they have a choice when it comes to managing pain after surgery. I’ve been encouraged by some of the progress I’ve witnessed at the professional and college levels to eliminate some of the pressure for athletes. By providing more rest days between games we give athletes the ability to recover. This, coupled with innovative approaches to managing pain, can help athletes stay healthy and minimize their exposure to opioids.
For more information on pain management options, including non-opioids, visit https://www.shatterproof.org/choices-matter.
Grant Hill is a former NBA All-Star who played professional basketball for 19 years.