Three-season varsity athlete Maria Tavierne (’16) used to take Advil to deal with her body pain, until it stopped working. “I felt like I almost took too much so I became immune to it,” she said. She then started taking Aleve several times a week after practice, another over-the-counter painkiller that is only available in the U.S.
Now, Tavierne feels stuck. She is worried about what her frequent use of painkillers might mean for her body long-term, but she feels that she needs to take them. “Sometimes, my mom gets worried because she thinks I take too much,” Tavierne said. “But I don’t know what to do now, because the pain is there and I don’t know how to get rid of it even though it’s bad for me.”
Zoe Barnes (’15) knows only too well how crucial a role medicine can play in sports. A cross-country runner, Barnes used to compete at Archbishop Spalding High School school in Maryland. The team was massive, with 70 athletes, and the top runners were put under tremendous pressure to win. “I really struggled with performance anxiety. Weeks before races, I would break down and cry. When we had races during school days, I would freak out, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I would literally cry at school,” she said.
She soon started taking medicine to help her for the races. “I actually had to take medicine, it was something that my doctor prescribed that would calm me down before races.”
Barnes felt uneasy about taking medication. “I didn’t really feel good about taking [medicine]. I didn’t feel like I was cheating, but I had a guilty conscience,” she said. But she didn’t really have a choice. “My coach would make sure before every race that I would take it. All they cared about was winning,” she said.
Without the coaches’ pressure at this school, Barnes no longer requires medication to compete.
Barnes feels that cross-country is unique in how its athletes relate to medicine. “More people feel like they need to take medicine for their mental state rather than their physical state. It’s really difficult getting through the races and I think if you know you are on the medicine, you feel better and you feel like you can get through the race,” she said.
Varsity basketball player Ryan Nealis (’17) knows first-hand the effects such medication can have on his body. This year, Nealis severely bruised his lower back after falling during a basketball game. With the guidance of his doctor, he started taking frequent doses of Advil to relieve the pain and soon felt the effects. “I could tell that I was feeling tired and more down, especially towards the end,” he said.
Nealis admits that before his injury, the effects of painkillers had never crossed his mind and that he rarely talked about it with his teammates.
Similarly, two-season varsity athlete Nick Muoio (’16) believes that the prevailing mentality around painkillers is that of ignorance. “I don’t see people passing around the bottle or talking about it, so I assume that they don’t know why it’s bad for you. People may not know the side effects or read the label,” he said.
Contrary to Nealis, Tavierne, who runs cross-country, swimming and track, sees medicine as a frequent topic of conversation in her teams. “I’ve heard people talking, ‘Oh, I took this amount of Aleve,’ it’s almost like a competition to see who has taken the most – to see who has the most pain,” she said.
However, Athletic Trainer Jennifer Newell has seen it much worse in the U.S. Three years into her tenure, Newell said she rarely had to talk to student-athletes about abusing medicine.
“I think maybe twice in my three years here, I’ve had the conversation about not taking too much. While compared to the States, [I had that conversation] very often,” Newell said. “I felt like I would have to have that conversation at least twice a season.”
Newell sees a stark difference in the use of medication between the U.S. and the U.K. She describes the U.K. as more wary of medication in general, from hand sanitizers to painkillers, and is more “on the natural side of things.”
She has even adjusted her own treatment techniques as a result of her move here. “Since being here, I recommend taking medicine a lot less,” Newell said.
According to the National Health Service, common pain medication Ibuprofen can cause high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and heart attack and even kidney failure.
Newell believes Homeopathic remedies have become an increasingly popular alternative to over-the-counter painkillers.
Nora Birch (’16) is a firm believer in homeopathic remedies. Although afflicted with back, knee and shin problems, Birch chooses not to use over-the-counter painkillers.
“I stopped [taking conventional medicine] in Grade 7 because I wanted to know when my body was healing rather than if my body was hiding the pain,” she said. “I did whatever I could whether it came to physiotherapy or herbal remedies so that I could tell when the pain was going away rather than just masking it,” she said.
While Birch thinks that some circumstances do necessitate over-the-counter medicine, she believes that some students seek medication too quickly as a solution. “I know certain people who are like ‘Oh, I have a tiny headache, let me pop two Advil’ or ‘Oh, I have a tiny cramp in my foot, let me take some Advil,’ [but] they don’t need to.”
Muoio can sympathize with turning to medicine as a way to quickly relieve the pain, and admits that that mentality could lead to overuse. “I can see it happening because it is so easy, you just need to take a pill and feel better,” he said.