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I-Team: Teen Athletes More Likely To Abuse Painkillers

BOSTON (CBS) - Most parents encourage their children to play sports so they get the benefits of fresh air and learn how to be a member of a team.

Despite those positive benefits, there is a drawback. It is estimated about two million teen athletes are seriously injured every year. Often, those patients are prescribed narcotic pain medication which can create a set of new issues.

Ann Ahearn-Avitibile remembers watching her son James score touchdowns at a young age on the football field. "He was an athlete, a star athlete."

But with the accolades came injuries for the star of Middleboro High School.

A fractured collarbone and a hamstring problem led to prescriptions for OxyContin. "We made him take his medication, thinking we were being good parents," said Ahearn-Avitibile. "We underestimated the power that these drugs had, and to tell you the truth, no one was really talking about it."

James quickly became addicted to prescription pain pills and then heroin. He eventually died of an overdose in 2013.

Ahearn-Avitibile has now lost two sons to the opioid epidemic. Her son Patrick died last summer. "I never in a million years would have thought this was my future, my present. Never."

"A sports injury is just one more pathway to addiction," said Peter Monaghan, a rehab specialist at Clean Slate in Plymouth. He is seeing more cases of teen athletes struggling with addiction.

WEB EXTRA: Steps to safeguard your teen against opioid addiction

"They want to please the coach. They want to please the parents. They try to get out on the field as soon as possible, but are they ready or are we just masking the pain?" asked Monaghan.

The threat of opioid abuse for teen athletes is real. One study found they are 50% more likely to abuse prescription painkillers.

Take the case of Robert King, who broke his foot when he was a high school wrestler. He was prescribed the addictive painkiller Percocet. "Once I started taking pills, I never really stopped," said King.

WBZ-TV Medical Editor Dr. Mallika Marshall explained part of the reason for this phenomenon is that the front part of the brain, known as the pre-frontal cortex isn't fully developed in humans until the age of 25.

This area of the brain regulates reasoning and impulse control.

"I think that because a teenager's brain isn't fully developed, that if a teenager is prescribed narcotics, for legitimate pain, that they are much more likely to actually end up abusing them because they don't have great decision making skills," added Dr. Marshall.

Experts say parents need to challenge doctors on whether these drugs are truly necessary. "Talk to your provider and say, 'Hey, is it OK if we start with just 5-10 of these? Is it OK if we call in a couple of days if we need more?" said Monaghan.

Ahearn-Avitibile thought a prescription was safe for her son since it was coming at a doctor's recommendation. She wishes now she had known to ask questions sooner. "One of the things you have to learn about this addiction is that parents have a lot of guilt, and a lot of sadness."

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