EPO and Blood Doping in Sports

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If you follow sports, you've undoubtedly heard of cases of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. Anabolic steroids are, perhaps, the most well-known agents, but erythropoietin (EPO)—a drug used to boost red blood cell counts in a practice called "blood doping"—falls under the umbrella of forbidden substances as well. In fact, it has been a particular target of accusation and speculation among the professional cycling world since the 1980s.

What Is "Blood Doping?"

Blood doping refers to any attempt to improve athletic performance by artificially increasing one's red blood cell count. Methods of blood doping can include:

  • Transfusions of someone else's blood
  • Re-infusion of one's own red blood cells
  • Administration of a drug such as EPO

Blood doping is in violation of standards set out by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and is banned in professional sports, but that hasn't stopped some athletes from doing it anyway.

In the News

Abuse of EPO injections made the news when Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour de France winner who was stripped of his title after testing positive for doping, confessed to years of using performance-enhancing drugs. His confession also accused 17 other riders including Lance Armstrong of doping.

Erythropoietin and Its Effect on Athletic Performance

EPO, a naturally occurring hormone that can also be manufactured and injected directly into the skin or bloodstream, has been shown to increase proliferation of red blood cells and increase the amount of oxygen carried to muscles.

Increased availability of oxygen to the muscles has been linked to a suppression of the progression of muscle fatigue and an increased ability to sustain the production of force over time.

This ability to continue exerting force for a longer period of time before feeling tired is what makes blood doping with EPO appealing for athletes hoping to reduce the recovery time between workouts, increase muscle power, and maintain an edge during competitions.

Is EPO Dangerous?

EPO has been shown to induce hypertension by thickening the blood, enhancing vascular reactivity, and increasing vasoconstriction. Greater blood viscosity puts strain on the heart, increasing the risk of blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes.

Harmful interactions may occur between EPO and other medications which induce hypertension. This risk is most pronounced during times when the heart rate slows down, such as during sleep.

EPO and many other banned methods of boosting athletic performance are under constant scrutiny by sporting agencies. Athletes are regularly tested to detect its presence. Even if one employs harm reduction measures to use EPO as safely as possible, there is still a danger of consequences to one's athletic career.

A Word From Verywell

EPO and other forms of blood doping are risky methods of performance enhancement, especially for people taking other medications which induce hypertension. Talk to your coach about safer options, such as improved nutrition, training, and/or implementation of sports psychology techniques. If you need to increase your red blood cell count for medical reasons, consult with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that makes sense for you.

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Article Sources
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Questions & Answers on EPO Detection.
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA Internatioal Standards.

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