Steroid use has gained high visibility in the media over the past few years, with most stories focusing on professional and teenage athletes. But a recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine found that non-medical use of anabolic steroids is actually most prevalent in highly educated, working professional white males in their early 30s who do not participate in competitive or organized sports.
The study found that these men were motivated to use anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) not to increase their athletic ability, but to enhance their appearance by increasing muscle mass. Steroid abusers were found to be very health-conscious, working out regularly and eating a carefully monitored diet. This health-consciousness, however, can lead steroid users to feel that they are immune from the negative effects of steroids.
What are Steroids?
AAS are synthetically produced versions of testosterone. These drugs can be legally prescribed to treat certain conditions resulting from steroid hormone deficiency, such as delayed puberty, as well as diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass, such as cancer and AIDS.
While some AAS are taken orally, most users prefer to inject them. Unlike other drugs, AAS are used in cycles rather than taken continuously. The steroids are taken for a period of weeks or months, stopped for a time to allow the body to counter the negative side effects, and then restarted.
Non-medical users may also combine different types of steroids. This is known as “stacking.”
The Dangers of Steroids
While AAS drugs aren’t used to achieve a “high” like most abused drugs, their long-term use can impact some of the same brain pathways and chemicals, and can significantly affect mood and behavior in their users.
Abuse of anabolic steroids may lead to aggression, extreme mood swings and manic-like symptoms that can lead to violence. This has been dubbed “roid-rage” in many media accounts. Other studies have found that users can suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.
Addictive Nature of Steroids
It may be difficult to compare steroid addiction with other prescription drug addictions, but studies involving animals have shown that animals will self-administer steroids when given the opportunity just as they do with other addictive drugs. Steroid abusers also spend large amounts of time and money obtaining the drug, which is another indication of addiction.
Withdrawal symptoms are often experienced when AAS are stopped. Those symptoms include mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, insomnia, reduced sex drive and steroid cravings. One of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms is depression. When persistent, it may lead to suicide attempts.
A study of 227 men admitted in 1999 to a private treatment center for dependence on heroin or other opioids found that 9.3 percent had abused AAS before trying any other illicit drug. Of those, 86 percent first used opioids to counteract insomnia and irritability resulting from the steroids.
Steroid abuse can lead to serious and irreversible health problems. Some of the most dangerous among these include liver damage, jaundice and high blood pressure. Other side effects experienced by men include shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts and an increased risk of prostate cancer. Adolescents may experience stunted growth if they take steroids before their typical adolescent growth spurt.
In addition, people who inject AAS run the risk of contracting or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, which causes serious damage to the liver.