Steroid Abuse - 6422

Recently, there has been a great deal about anabolic steroid abuse by professional athletes, many of whom are regarded as role models by today\s youth.

Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the primary male sex hormone, testosterone. They promote the growth of skeletal muscle and the development of male sexual characteristics. People choose to partake in steroid abuse because they do, in fact, enhance certain types of physical performance and appearance. This practice is not new - athletes in many sports have abused steroids and other substances in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. This occurs despite the severe and often irreversible adverse health consequences to those taking these drugs.

Anabolic steroids are available legally only by prescription, to treat conditions that occur when the body produces abnormally low amounts of testosterone, such as delayed puberty and some types of impotence. They are also prescribed to treat body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass. People who take anabolic steroids usually inject them or take them orally. It is important to realize that the doses taken by those who abuse steroids are supraphysiological; that is, they are much larger than what the body normally produces for healthy function. The main visible result of steroid abuse is an increase in the size of skeletal muscle; people who abuses steroids can clearly be seen to "get bigger." Today, men and women, including adolescents, abuse a variety of drugs, such as anabolic steroid abuse, in the hope of improving their athletic performance and appearance.

Effects of Steroid Abuse

Individuals should be concerned about anabolic steroid abuse, as well as other prescription medications, since abusing these drugs can lead to serious health problems, some irreversible. People who abuse anabolic steroids, particularly those involved in weight training, will experience increases in strength and muscle size significantly beyond those observed from training alone. However, there are long-term health risks associated with steroid abuse that can be very serious and potentially life threatening. Younger steroid abusers, both male and female, are at risk of permanently halting their bone growth, which could result in shorter stature than nature had intended. Males may experience a shrinking of their testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts, and an increased risk for prostate cancer. In females, anabolic steroids have been associated with a number of adverse effects, some of which appear to be permanent even when drug use is stopped, including menstrual abnormalities, deepening of voice, male-pattern baldness, and an increase in sex drive, acne, and body hair.  For both genders, other consequences include liver and heart disease, stroke, drug dependence, and increased aggression. In addition, people who inject anabolic steroids run the added risk of contracting and/or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis through sharing contaminated needles.

Why Steriod Abuse?

Anabolic steroids are different from other drugs of abuse in that many of their "reinforcing effects", i.e., those effects that keep a person using a drug, are not experienced immediately or rapidly. The main reason people abuse steroids is to improve their performance in sports or their appearance, that is, to increase their muscle size and/or reduce their body fat. These effects take time to develop, although once developed may be a strong incentive for continued anabolic steroid abuse. Some percentage of steroid abusers become addicted to the drugs, as evidenced by their continuing to take steroids in spite of seriously adverse medical problems. One of the most dangerous consequences is the severe depression that can occur during withdrawal. NIDA (National Institude on Drug Abuse) researchers have investigated factors that increase an individual\'s likelihood of abusing anabolic steroids. Among these is a unique syndrome which NIDA researchers identified and termed "muscle dysmorphia." It involves a preoccupation with physique, poor insight into actual body size or weight, rigid dietary practices, and impairments in social or occupational functioning. It has been described in both females and males who train with weights, and it is more common in those who abuse anabolic steroids. 

Scope of Steroid Abuse

NIDA supports the conduct of a nationwide survey, Monitoring the Future (MTF), which annually collects information on drug abuse and attitudes about drug risk among the Nation\'s 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students. MTF has been collecting information on youth steroid abuse since 1989 in high school seniors and since 1991 in all three grades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also conducts a biennial survey of students in grades 9 through 12, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which includes questions on anabolic steroids. Note that although both surveys query overlapping age groups of students, they are designed differently and results may therefore differ. In 2003, according to YRBS, 6.1% of students reported illegal use of anabolic steroids at least once in their lifetime, up from 2.7% in 1991.

The most recent MTF survey found that, in 2004, past year steroid abuse among 12th graders was holding steady, but at peak levels of about 2.5%. This translates into an estimated 79,000 high school seniors who report having abused anabolic steroids in the past year. Perception of harm among 12th grade students has also been holding steady for the past few years at approximately 56%, which is down from a peak of 71% in 1992. When students view drugs as less harmful their levels of abuse often increase. We are encouraged, though, by the fact that the survey also found abuse by 8th graders within the past year declined, from 1.4% in 2003 to 1.1% in 2004.

This encouraging news regarding 8th graders contrasts with what was prevalent a few years ago. In late 1999, we learned from the MTF that anabolic steroid abuse had increased among 8th and 10th graders, and that the perceived risk of harm from anabolic steroid abuse had declined among 12th graders.


The research on steroid abuse clearly indicates that inappropriate use of anabolic steroids can have serious health consequences. In light of recent publicity on this issue, we must be vigilant to educate young people that these are dangerous drugs and need to be viewed that way. This is a particularly important problem since not all anabolic steroid abusers experience the same deleterious outcomes, and many serious problems require months or years to develop, which could lead to conflicting street messages.