Steroids, or more appropriately anabolic steroids, are synthetic chemicals related to male sex hormones. Medically, anabolic steroids are commonly used as hormone replacement therapy in some men, teens suffering from late puberty, and for muscle loss in certain diseases. However, bodybuilders and athletes (among others), who use them to build muscles and enhance performance, commonly abuse anabolic steroids.
Taking steroids for these purposes is illegal and may be dangerous.
Abuse occurs when someone uses the steroids without a medical prescription or takes steroids improperly (e.g., taking excessive doses or taking them too frequently).
Perceived Benefits of Using Steroids
As with most abused substances, steroids are abused for a specific function. Unlike most narcotics or illegal drugs, anabolic steroids do not cause a sense of euphoria or any type of “high.” MedlinePlus, a service of the National Institutes of Health, reports that anabolic steroids are used illegally to increase muscle mass in athletes, bodybuilders, teens and young men. Steroids are also used to increase athletic performance and prevent injury.
Anabolic steroids are able to flood the body with male hormones that help enhance secondary male characteristics, like muscle growth. However, with a proper regimen of diet and physical activity, athletes can build muscle mass.
Furthermore, steroid use does not guarantee continued muscle growth, but regular exercise provides more lm results. Over time, steroid abusers develop a dependence on the drug. Psychologically, they will suffer powerful cravings and begin to seek out the drug despite adverse effects and financial problems. The body may react badly to a decrease in steroid levels and therefore, steroid abusers may suffer from some symptoms of withdrawal.
Physical Side Effects
As with most medications, anabolic steroids cause a variety of side effects. The same hormones responsible for muscle growth and other benefits of steroids also cause several unwanted effects.
- Acne and Cysts. Steroids significantly increase the development of acne, even in adults. Male sex hormones are linked to the genesis of acne and by increasing levels through anabolic steroid abuse, addicts are more likely to develop acne.
- Gynecomastia and shrinking of testicles. Steroids contain hormones that interfere with male sexual development. Men using steroids tend to have an increased amount of breast tissue, a condition called gynecomastia. Steroids are also associated with shrinking testicles.
- Deep voice and hair growth in women. Women who abuse anabolic steroids will experience an obvious deepening of their voice. They may also notice increased hair growth on their body and face.
Many of the physical effects of anabolic steroid use are well documented; however, there are numerous psychological effects that are often overlooked. According to a study published in CNS Drugs, steroid abuse is associated with:
- Aggressive behavior. Anabolic steroid abusers are often more aggressive than normal. Friends and relatives will report a sudden and drastic change in their loved one after that person starts taking steroids.
- Violence. In more severe cases, steroid uses will resort to violence and physical attacks. Some steroid addicts will commit violent crimes.
- Mania. Anabolic steroids cause patients to experience mania that may develop into psychosis. Addicts will have excessive energy and may develop paranoia and agitation.
- Suicide. After a manic episode, steroids can cause addicts to experience a swift downshift in emotions and ultimately develop depression. In the worst cases, this depression can lead to suicide.
- Dependence. Steroid addicts can develop a dependence on the drug. They will crave anabolic steroids once they discontinue use. This can prevent the addict from staying drug-free.
There are numerous long-term health consequences caused by anabolic steroid abuse. These effects are more apparent in patients who have used anabolic steroids for an extended period of time.
People addicted to anabolic steroids may develop:
- Heart problems. Anabolic steroids often place undue stress on the heart and the surrounding blood vessels. Heart failure, heart attacks and other forms of heart disease are possible complications of anabolic steroid use.
- Liver disease. The liver is responsible for filtering out all unwanted hormones and drugs in the body. Excess steroid levels can damage the liver and cause hepatitis and liver scarring. Over time, liver damage can lead to the development of cancer.
- Strokes. Strokes are caused by obstruction or destruction of the arteries supplying the brain with blood. If these vessels are unable to transport blood to the brain, the addict suffers a stroke. Strokes are lethal and, even if the patient survives, there are often memory loss issues, physical disabilities and other neurological problems.
- Kidney failure. The kidney, like the liver, is responsible for filtering toxic substances from the blood. Exposure to high anabolic steroid levels can damage the tissues of the kidney and prevent proper function. If both kidneys are damaged, the addict will die without emergency dialysis.
- Infectious diseases. Steroids are injected. Some addicts share needles, which exposes them to infectious diseases, like hepatitis, HIV and other blood-borne diseases.
- Cholesterol problems. Steroid use interferes with normal cholesterol levels. Anabolic steroids cause an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol and a decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol levels. High LDL levels and low HDL levels are associated with heart disease, blood vessel damage and other cardiovascular defects.
- Sexual dysfunction. Many patients addicted to steroids complain of infertility or other sexual dysfunctions, like problems achieving an erection. This is chiefly due to the ability of anabolic steroids to inhibit the production of normal hormones.
Signs and Symptoms of Abuse
Identifying abuse of steroid medications is often difficult. Most addicts are highly functioning and in peak physical condition. Often without a full medical workup including blood or urine tests, it is hard to confirm steroid abuse. However, there a few signs and symptoms associated with steroid use.
Steroid abusers experience a sudden and unexpected increase in muscle mass. Increasing muscle mass usually takes a few months to years to occur.
If there is a sudden increase in muscle mass within a few weeks, steroid abuse may be suspected. Steroid addicts are also susceptible to swift mood changes. Addicts will have aggressive behavior followed by periods of depression. Manic states are common, but are then replaced with a state of sedation.
The pattern of behavior changes is so unusual that friends and family members begin to notice. Abusing steroids is linked with dermatological problems, like severe adult acne, cysts and uncontrollable rashes. These effects are often sudden and resistant to treatment. Acne can appear on the face, back, trunk and extremities.
Steroid Use in College Students
Anabolic steroid use is more prominent in amateur level athletes because professional athletes undergo rigorous testing. An article published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence reports that around one percent of polled college athletes admitted to abusing anabolic steroids at least once in their lives.
Male athletes are more prone to abuse steroids and 0.9 percent confess to using anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes within the past year.
Non-medical use of anabolic steroids is associated with several other risky behaviors, like alcohol disorders, illicit drug use, smoking, and drinking and driving. Nearly 70 percent of students who abused steroids within their lifetime also suffered from alcoholism. Rates are low due to more stringent testing guidelines, but careful monitoring is necessary to ensure that college athletes, and athletes of all levels, do not abuse anabolic steroids.
Treatment and Intervention
If you are sure that your loved one is abusing anabolic steroids, your best option is to consult a medical professional. Most steroid users react with anger when confronted about their steroid use. A healthcare professional is trained to assess the situation and determine the best possible treatment option.
In many cases, an intervention is the best way to start the treatment process.
Interventions allow friends and relatives to gather and share their feelings and experiences with the steroid addict. Throughout an intervention, the addict will face the untold or ignored consequences of steroid use. Often a former addict will be present to talk about the dangers and risks associated with steroid abuse.
The goals of an intervention are to help the addict seek treatment and to provide knowledge to all participants about the best way to cope with and treat steroid abuse. Recovering addicts will need to be in an environment where steroid use is discouraged and avoided. Without the proper living environment, anabolic steroid users have a high likelihood of relapsing.
A professional interventionist will educate all intervention members and ensure that the addict has the best chance for successful treatment.