Learn More About Use and Abuse of Anabolic Steroids

Why Are People Using Anabolic Steroids?

Man about to inject himself with steroids, profile (B&W)
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Anabolic-androgenic steroids, or anabolic steroids as they are commonly known, were developed in the 1930s to promote the growth of skeletal muscle and to develop male sexual characteristics. The drugs were seen as offering great potential for their protein-building properties, but their use by doctors has, in fact, been quite limited. Anabolic steroid use is more commonly associated with bodybuilders, weightlifters, and other male and female athletes.

Who Uses Anabolic Steroids?

Anabolic steroids are associated with:

Sport, Bodybuilding, and Body Shaping: Anabolic steroids are used because of their ability to improve performance by increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat, so their use depends on the type of sport undertaken. It is believed that anabolic steroid use is widespread in competitive bodybuilding. Steroid use in sport is illegal and international athletes are tested to prevent some gaining an unfair advantage. Anabolic steroids are also used, especially by men, to change their body shape towards a more muscular physique.

Medical Usage of Anabolic Steroids: Steroids are used for treating delayed puberty; some types of impotence; wasting of the body due to such conditions as HIV; some types of anemia; osteoporosis (brittle bones in menopausal women) and for itching caused by a liver condition called primary biliary obstruction.

How Are Anabolic Steroids Used and Abused?

Anabolic steroids can be taken orally, by injection or in creams or gels. Dosages prescribed by doctors will depend on the medical condition, its severity, and age of the patient.

In the illegal use of this group of steroids, dosages are highly variable and can be 10 to 40, sometimes 100 times higher than the recommended dose.

Two or more oral and injectable types of anabolic steroids are often used. This is called 'stacking'. There is a belief that two or more interacting steroids produced an improved result.
So-called 'pyramid' doses of anabolic steroids are also used in 6 to 12-week cycles where the 'stacked' steroids begin with smaller doses that slowly increase, reach a peak then slowly decrease and stop. There is a drug-free period after this before the cycle starts again.

It is believed by arranging the doses and drugs in this way that the body is allowed time to adjust and avoid the well-documented side effects so the body can return to normal production of hormones. This belief has not been scientifically verified so relies on the illegal user's ability to report accurately on their experiences. We do know that steroid abuse can effect that ability.

Adverse Effects and Complications of Anabolic Steroid Use

The side effects of anabolic steroids are serious and not uncommon. In general oral anabolic steroids have more side effects and those containing 17-alky have potentially more adverse side effects. Some side effects are reversible but some can cause permanent damage.

Anabolic Steroids and Liver Damage

Research, especially those studying hospitalized patients, shows the liver can suffer serious effects from the use of anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids reduce the livers excretory function. This is particularly so with the steroids containing 17-alky. The liver can suffer from a bleeding cystic condition that is potentially fatal. Use of steroids has also been linked to liver cancer, although this is very rare.

Anabolic Steroids and the Cardiovascular System

Although no long-term studies have been conducted into the effects of anabolic steroids on the heart and the vascular system there is evidence from studies and investigations that they can cause or are risk factors for cardiovascular system damage, problems with blood pressure and lipoproteins such as cholesterol. There is some evidence that anabolic steroids can cause structural changes to the heart and that heart disease and strokes are possible with anabolic steroids especially oral types of the drug.

Anabolic Steroids and the Male Reproductive System

As anabolic steroids are so strongly associated with male traits such as strength and muscles it seems tragic that the side effects of the drug are:

  • Increased erectile dysfunction, and impotence, even though sexual desire is increased.
  • Gynecomastia (growth of the breasts) a condition that is generally irreversible and plastic surgery is required to remove the breasts.
  • Atrophy or shrinkage of the testicles can occur and is reported usually with high dose use of anabolic steroids.
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