Anabolic steroids are synthetic chemicals that mimic the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone. Some athletes seeking increased muscular strength and size abuse anabolic steroids. They may reach their goal of increased strength in the short term but risk serious medical complications in the long term.
"Anabolic" denotes the ability to induce protein synthesis, particularly in muscle cells. As a result, isometric muscle strength increases. These steroids are also androgenic, which means that they cause changes characteristic of males, such as growth of facial hair, loss of scalp hair, deepening of the voice, skin oiliness, and aggressive behavior.
A female taking anabolic steroids experiences irregular menstrual periods and atrophy of the breasts and uterus, and develops the male-associated characteristics. A male may develop an enlarged prostate and atrophy of the testicles.
Steroid abuse stunts height, increases weight, dampens immunity, and can damage the kidneys, liver, and heart. Blood vessels may become blocked with fatty plaque. The liver may develop tumors, and infertility is common. Psychiatric symptoms include depression, delusions, and violent tendencies, sometimes called "'roid rage."
Athletes call anabolic steroids 'roids, juice, pump, or hype. Some of the one hundred varieties are oxymetholone, oxandrolone, and stanozolol (taken orally) and nandrolone and boldenone (taken by injection). Abusers may take one huge dose seeking instant strength, slowly build up the dose (pyramiding), or "stack" different types of steroids. Whatever the delivery route, the message to the body is the same: there's too much testosterone; halt normal production.
Despite the well-known side effects of anabolic steroids, use among athletes is widespread, perhaps because of the example set by professional baseball, basketball, and hockey players who use them. However, the National Football League, International Olympic Committee, and National Collegiate Athletic Association ban their use. Still, about 30 percent of college and professional athletes use anabolic steroids, as do 10 to 20 percent of high school athletes. Among U.S. bodybuilders, studies show that steroid use exceeds 80 percent.
Olympic athletes have often been punished for steroid use. After Canadian Ben Johnson flew past his competitors in the 100-meter run in the 1988 summer Olympics, officials rescinded his gold medal when a urine test revealed stanozolol in Johnson's system. His natural testosterone level was only 15 percent of a normal male's. Shot-putters, discus throwers, wrestlers, and swimmers have also been known to use anabolic steroids. In 2000, a urine test on U.S. shot-putter C. J. Hunter revealed one thousand times the allowable limit of nandrolone.
Anabolic steroids do have legitimate medical uses. They were first synthesized in the 1930s to treat underdeveloped testes and resulting testosterone deficiency. In the 1950s, they were used to treat anemia and muscle-wasting disorders and to bulk up patients whose muscles had atrophied from extended bed rest. In the 1960s, anabolic steroids were used to treat some forms of dwarfism. Today anabolic steroids are being studied for their ability to alleviate the extreme body wasting associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Their most common use, however, remains among athletes seeking a quick competitive edge.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Steroids: Play Safe, Play Fair. <http://www.aap.org/family/steroids.htm> .
Dobs, Adrian Sandra. "Is There a Role for Androgenic Anabolic Steroids in Medical Practice?" The Journal of the American Medical Association 281, no. 14 (1999) :1326.
National Institute of Drug Abuse. Anabolic Steroid Abuse. <http://www.nida.nih.gov/ResearchReports/Steroids/anabolicsteroids2.html> .