The American Sleep Apnea Association is keeping its eyes glued to the details of Tiger Woods’ recent DUI arrest as they continue to emerge. The use (and, some might say, abuse) of opioid and benzodiazepine medications by the legendary golfer is something we should all be thinking about if we suffer silently with undertreated, or undiagnosed and untreated, medical conditions, including sleep disorders.
What happened to Tiger Woods on Memorial Day could happen to anyone.
First, let’s take a look at what’s transpired.
Timeline: The Tiger Woods DUI arrest
April 20, 2017
Tiger Woods had a fourth back surgery to alleviate pain, rest of 2017 season in doubt (GOLF)—”Woods had been on hiatus from competitive golf since withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic in early February and recently sat out the Masters, the season’s first major. The 14-time major winner was hoping to return to a full schedule in 2017 and kicked off his most recent comeback with a 15th-place finish (out of 17 competitors) at the Hero World Challenge in December. But Woods missed the cut in his second event, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, and withdrew after one round in Dubai, citing a back injury.”
May 24, 2017
Tiger’s Blog: Updates on Tiger Jam and My Recovery (Tiger’s Blog)—”It has been just over a month since I underwent fusion surgery on my back, and it is hard to express how much better I feel. It was instant nerve relief. I haven’t felt this good in years. …I could no longer live with the pain I had. We tried every possible non-surgical route and nothing worked. I had good days and bad days, but the pain was usually there, and I couldn’t do much. Even lying down hurt. I had nerve pain with anything I did and was at the end of my rope. The process leading up to my decision to have surgery was exhaustive. I consulted with a specialist, and after weighing my options, that’s when I decided to go to Texas to have surgery. …You mention the word ‘fusion,’ and it’s scary. Other guys who have had fusions or disc replacements like Davis Love III, Retief Goosen, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Dudley Hart …they have all come back and played. But more than anything, it made their lives better. That’s the most important thing …that I can have a life again with my kids.”
May 29, 2017
Tiger Woods arrested in Florida on DUI suspicion (USA Today)—”Tiger Woods was arrested in Florida on suspicion of driving under the influence early Monday morning. …Woods was booked into the Palm Beach County Jail on Monday at 7:18 a.m. ET after he was arrested by police in Jupiter, Fla. Woods, who owns a home on Jupiter Island, was released on his own recognizance at 10:50 a.m. …The arrest occurred about 3 a.m. during a traffic stop off Military Trail, just south of Indian Creek Parkway, according to Jupiter police spokesperson Kristin Rightler.”
June 3, 2017
Did Tiger Woods bogey his DUI? (CNN)— “When famed golfer Tiger Woods was arrested in Florida on suspicion of DUI, did he deal with the authorities correctly? Two defense attorneys disagree.”
June 12, 2017
BREAKING: Tiger Woods mixed Vicodin, Xanax, police say (Palm Beach Post)—”Doctors warn that Xanax and Vicodin can be especially dangerous when mixed, hindering the body’s ability to breathe. In an August 2016 advisory, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned of ‘serious risks and deaths’ from combining benzodiazepines such as Xanax, with opioid medicines such as Vicodin. Opioids are powerful narcotic medicines severe pain.”
Tiger Woods enters rehab for pill addiction, report says (Golfweek)—”Woods reserved the entire male inpatient unit of the Jupiter Medical Center near his Florida home for his stint for an addiction to prescription pills, the website says. …’Tiger visited the hospital with his children on June 2, then went alone two days later to complete paperwork and his assessment,’ a source told the site.”
June 19, 2017
Read: Tiger Woods Statement on Medications & Sleep Disorder (Heavy)—”Tiger released a statement after his arrest, and blamed the incident on prescribed medications.”
What happens next?
Woods faces arraignment on August 9, 2017 regarding charges of DUI (driving under the influence). At that time, the state’s attorney has multiple legal options: to proceed as a typical DUI offense, to file for more severe charges, to seek a lesser charge (i.e. reckless driving) or to drop charges entirely.
In Florida, conviction of a first-time DUI offender (which Woods qualifies as) could mean up to six months in jail, a year in probation, $1000 in fines and fees, a dozen hours of “DUI school,” 50 hours of community service, and suspension of Woods’ driver’s license for at least six months.
Meanwhile, he remains in rehab as a condition to maintain 50/50 custody of his two children.
Tiger Woods’ story is America’s story
Regardless whether one is a fan of golf, or of Tiger Woods, opinions about the athlete or his sport are irrelevant.
Anyone who has undergone any kind of surgery for pain relief (especially back surgery) should know, first-hand, the potential for addiction to pain medications and the way pain (and anxiety) can rob one of much needed sleep, so necessary for healing.
Pain is the enemy of sleep
Woods may be a celebrity athlete, but he’s also human. When human beings encounter long-lasting pain, they suffer. Back pain makes it very difficult to sleep because it can be impossible to find a position comfortable enough to relax. Pain can delay sleep onset for this reason, which can inspire anxiety about living with pain and about losing much needed sleep.
Sleep loss due to insomnia (caused by pain or anxiety) is well known to magnify one’s perception of pain, which makes the recovery process from surgery that much more of a challenge.
Enter the two drugs found in Woods’ system at the time of his arrest. Xanax is frequently prescribed to treat insomnia, and with good intentions. Sometimes, people in pain need a little extra help getting the sleep they need to heal and recover. And then there’s Vicodin, a widely prescribed, but highly addictive, narcotic.
Opioid addiction is an American nightmare
More Americans than ever are turning to prescription drugs, ostensibly to manage pain. Yet statistics suggest the addictive nature of some of these medications may overshadow their long-term use for pain relief.
The fact that opioids have also become one of the most abused recreational substances makes matters worse. The state of Florida, where Woods was arrested for DUI on Memorial Day, declared opioid abuse and addiction a widespread epidemic only six weeks prior to Woods’ arrest.
It seems that many prescription drug users do not understand (or care about) the dangerous side effects of these medications. Nor are they aware how their use can impair driving. This, in spite of directly spoken warnings from healthcare professionals and multiple warnings found on drug labels and recited by dispensing pharmacists.
Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Scott Davis recently shared the frustration police officers face when motorists use medications without acknowledging increased risks for car accidents.
“We see that all the time with prescription drugs, and they think, ‘Oh, my doctor gave it to me, it’s okay to drive …hen in reality they’re actually more of a danger than somebody under influence of alcohol,” Davis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But is it drowsy driving or DUI?
The Palm Beach Post reported that police in Jupiter, FL stopped Woods about eight miles from his Jupiter Island home. They found him asleep in his 2015 black Mercedes-Benz; the car was still running, its brake lights were on, two tires had gone flat, and the right blinker was flashing.
When the police woke him up, Woods did not know where he was. Though he didn’t pass a field sobriety test, he took a Breathalyzer test. His score of 0.0 eliminated driving under the influence of alcohol as an arrest option.
However, it was clear that Woods was in no shape to drive early Memorial Day morning. Later investigations, with cooperation from Woods, show he’d taken Xanax and Vicodin before getting into the car.
All who are involved agree: Woods shouldn’t have climbed behind the wheel of the car that night. But he did. Was his lapse in judgment in that moment inspired by coherent thinking? Of course not. Mixing an opiate like Vicodin with a sleep-inducing medication like Xanax is going to lead to regrettable, irresponsible behavior, not least of which was his decision to drive.
This doesn’t excuse Woods’ grave mistake, but shines a spotlight on an equally grave national reality.
American drivers across the country make this same mistake regularly enough to inspire legislation to better define terms like drowsy driving, driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated, driving while impaired, drugged driving, reckless driving, and more. Given the epidemic proportion of opiate addiction in the US, such clarity is necessary to mete out proper protocols for addressing the dangerous driving trends that have emerged.
The Atlantic called out this harsh reality in an article published on May 30 which establishes Woods as the new poster child for drugged driving:
“For the first time ever, drivers in fatal crashes are more likely to be on drugs than alcohol.”
From the article in The Atlantic:
A report published this April by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility found that both illegal and prescription drugs are found in the bodies of fatally-injured drivers—a good source of data, since they are tested more often than drivers in non-fatal crashes—about 43 percent of the time. Alcohol above the legal limit, meanwhile, was found in just 37 percent of the drivers.
The number of people driving under the influence of prescription drugs has increased in recent years. A just-released study found that 20 percent of drivers had used a prescription drug in the past two days—mostly sedatives, antidepressants, and painkillers.
Meanwhile, this August 2016 article in The Legal Examiner spotlights a different, but related nightmare:
What we can learn from Tiger Woods
Here’s a man with the means to hire a private driver to get around, if he needs to. But he didn’t, and he got behind the wheel of the car. He’s not the only one. With the opioid epidemic run amok, it’s only going to happen more frequently.
- We can learn that driving while taking opioids comes with great risks. Granted, nobody was hurt in the Tiger Woods case. But it could have easily ended up in a multi-car collision, property damage, even fatalities, had the right blend of traffic and decision making taken place.
- We can also learn that impaired driving is more than just a scary situation. It can lead to arrests, convictions, jail time, and hefty fines and fees.
- Finally, we can learn that proper pain management and adequate sleep are critical to recovery from surgery or other health problems and that, no matter how good you think you feel, you really need to stay away from the driver’s seat until you can be given a clean bill of health by your doctor.
Don’t be a hero. Using pain medication? Don’t drive. It’s that simple.