When people think of commonly abused or addictive drugs, steroids probably aren’t the first or even second or third substance that comes to mind. However, steroids have a long history of abuse, largely within the world of professional athletics. But, many teens and college students who, unaware of the dangers, will also use steroids to try to bulk up quickly or increase their physical performance.
Controversy involving steroid use in America has largely been out of the public eye since the doping scandals in Major League Baseball and charges of steroid use surrounding professional cyclist Lance Armstrong in the early 2000s.
However, steroids recently came back into not only national but also international conversation with the uncovering of a massive doping conspiracy among Russian athletes that resulted in the International Olympic Committee banning Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Steroids do have many legitimate medical uses, including helping to treat asthma attacks, inducing puberty in people with hormone deficiency, and promoting muscle growth to counteract the effects of various serious wasting diseases. But even these prescribed steroid uses come with negative side effects, which are only magnified by steroid abuse.
What are Steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs derived from the testosterone hormone that is naturally produced in the body. They promote muscle growth and also magnify many of the characteristics associated with puberty in men.
An American physician named Dr. Ziegler synthesized the first known form of anabolic steroids after learning that high-performing Soviet athletes at the 1956 Olympics had been using testosterone to boost their performance.
Until around the 1970s, steroid use was extremely prevalent among both Olympic and professional athletes. In 1975, the International Olympic Committee banned the use of steroids, and in 1988, steroids became federally regulated. Finally, in 1990, Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Enforcement Act, which classified certain types of steroids as Schedule III drugs.
Anabolic Steroids Can Be Administered in a Variety of Different Ways, Including:
- Orally as a pill or tablet
- Intramuscular injection
- Subcutaneous injection
- Through the skin as a gel or patch
- A pellet implant underneath the skin
How Do Steroids Work?
When someone starts weight-lifting, or even just lifts something that’s heavier than what they’re used to handling, it creates microscopic tears in the body’s muscle fibers. As the body works to repair these tears, it also attempts to overcompensate by using bigger cells to build stronger muscle fiber. Over time, this repeated tearing, repairing, and strengthening process is how people get bigger muscles from lifting weights and working out.
The main component that helps the body make this muscle growth happen is testosterone. So what anabolic steroids do is supplement the body with higher levels of testosterone to kick the repairing and strengthening process into overdrive. Once steroids have been introduced into the bloodstream, they will travel to the muscle tissue and bind with what are known as androgen receptors.
Androgen receptors regulate how the body responds to hormones like testosterone and the development of male sexual characteristics. In both men and women, androgen receptors also regulate functions like hair growth and sex drive, which is why these two functions are so greatly impacted by steroid use.
Steroids will then activate the androgen receptors in the body’s muscle cells and stimulate the cell growth process as well as block cortisol, which is a stress hormone that helps break down muscle. This both speeds up muscle growth and slows down the breakdown process, which means less tired muscles and faster recovery time.
In performing these functions, steroids throw the body’s natural hormone production out of balance, causing permanent side effects such as breast growth and shrunken testicles in men and facial hair growth and menstrual problems in women as the body attempts to compensate and regulate itself.
Unlike many other commonly abused drugs, steroids do not stimulate addictive behaviors by means of increasing brain chemicals like dopamine that get the user high.
Instead, many people become physically addicted to steroids in that their body will have adapted and become dependent on steroid use in order to perform at the same physical level, growing tolerant to the drug’s effects and requiring more and more of it.
They may also become psychologically addicted to using steroids, feeling that they “need” them and seeing themselves as weak or fat without them, even if this is not actually the case.
What are the Effects of Steroid Use?
The Main Short-Term Effects of Steroid Use are the Ones that Those Engaging in it are Hoping to Achieve, Including:
- Increased muscle size and strength
- Increased endurance
- Reduced healing time
- Boost in overall physical performance
But nothing’s free and using steroids to achieve these effects also mean experiencing all the other short-term side effects, which range from merely unpleasant to potentially life-threatening:
- Retention of fluid
- Impaired judgment and decision-making ability
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood swings
- Increased cholesterol
- Impaired sexual performance
The long-term effects of regular steroid abuse are extremely serious and can cause permanent health problems and damage to both the body and the brain. The effects will also vary depending on both the gender and age of the individual with the steroid addiction. Long-term effects for both sexes and any age include:
- Heart attacks
- Problems with blood clotting
- Increased risk of stroke
- Liver damage
- Extremely impaired sexual functioning
- High risk of injury to muscles, tendons, and ligaments
- Enlarged heart
- Kidney failure
- Increasingly violent behavior
Long-Term Effects of Steroid Abuse that are Specific to Men Include:
- Increased risk of prostate cancer
- Depleted sperm count
- Hair loss
- Breast development
- Testicular atrophy (shrinking testicles)
Long-Term Effects of Steroid Abuse that are Specific to Women Include:
- Deepened voice
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Significant growth of face and body hair
- Enlarged clitoris
In addition, teens that engage in steroid abuse, such as middle and high school-aged athletes, can experience severely stunted growth, as the high hormone levels produced by steroids act as a signal to the body to stop bone growth too early.
What are the Signs of Steroid Addiction?
It could be assumed that the symptoms of steroid abuse are fairly easy to spot, as the appearance of someone with a steroid addiction will usually be significantly altered. However, as we previously mentioned, because steroid abuse is not as embedded in the public consciousness as opioid abuse, even if a person begins exhibiting physical changes associated with the symptoms of steroid abuse, it is possible not to realize that they might be in the grips of steroid addiction.
Some of the Common Signs of Steroid Addiction Include:
- Major acne breakouts in someone with previously clear skin
- Rapid muscle gain within a period of about 10 weeks or less
- Noticeable increase in aggressive behavior and mood swings
- If they are injecting steroids, there will be visible track marks on the skin
- Ordering vials, syringes, and needles
- Multiple empty pill or steroid cream bottles in the trash
- Ordering steroids in bulk online
If you have observed these signs of steroid addiction in a family member or a friend, then it is imperative that treatment is sought as soon as possible in order to avoid any more of the serious damage that steroid abuse can do to the body.
What is Involved in Steroid Addiction Treatment?
As we said before, many people may not realize that steroids are, in fact, addictive, and this makes it that much easier for those who abuse steroids to become dependent, and that much more difficult for them to quit.
The best chance at successful steroid addiction treatment begins with flushing steroids from the body in a process called detoxification, which should always be done at a professional medical detox facility. This ensures that those undergoing steroid detox can do so safely and without the danger of relapsing midway through.
While steroid withdrawal itself is generally not a life-threatening process, some of the withdrawal symptoms, which are largely psychological in nature, can be extremely difficult to manage without medical intervention and can place an individual in a potentially dangerous situation. For example, one of the most common steroid withdrawal symptoms is severe depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Detoxing at a medical detox center not only includes around the clock monitoring from experienced professionals, but doctors can also prescribe medications to help remove any unnecessary discomfort caused by steroid withdrawal symptoms as part of the steroid addiction treatment. Some medications typically utilized during steroid detox include:
- Synthetic hormones: These can be prescribed by a doctor who specifically specializes in hormone treatment and is used to help balance testosterone levels in the body and bring the naturally-produced hormones back into balance.
- Antidepressants: These may be administered to help lessen the symptoms of depression and suicidal behavior, but may take as long as two weeks to become effective.
- Clonidine: This is an extremely useful medication for treating steroid addiction, as it can help lower high blood pressure caused steroid abuse as well as reduce withdrawal symptoms like muscles aches and anxiety.
Once someone has completed the detox process, the next step in addiction treatment is entering into an addiction recovery program. While this may not seem like a necessary step, it is especially crucial in the case of steroid addiction because, as we mentioned before, it is often a psychological addiction based not on chemical dependency but body dysmorphia.
Behavioral therapy in addiction recovery treatment can help to confront the issues behind someone’s steroid addiction, uncovering and treating co-occurring mental disorders such as depression or other self-image issues that may have contributed to abusing steroids.
Along with individual counseling, addiction rehabilitation treatment can also provide a network of support by way of group therapy with other individuals who have gone through similar experiences. In order to truly address and change addictive behavior, a recovery treatment program is a key component in steroid addiction treatment.
How Dangerous are Steroids?
While many people abusing steroids are ignorant of the damage it can cause, the dangers of steroids have been well-documented for decades now. In an interview with ESPN from 1991, former NFL player Lyle Alzado said of his experience with steroid abuse:
“It was addicting, mentally addicting…I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car, and I beat the hell out of him. Now, look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things.”
We’ve already mentioned the severe damage that a steroid addiction causes to the heart as well as several other major organs and that it can permanently disrupt the body’s hormone balance and production.
Many men who have been engaging in long-term steroid abuse think that once they stop using the changes steroid addiction has made to their bodies, such as breast development and shrunken testicles, will go away on their own. Unfortunately, this is not true, and the physical side effects of steroid addiction will remain long after someone has stopped using.
“Steroids have also been proven to cause catastrophic hip injury in men through a condition known as aseptic necrosis, a weakening in the part of the leg that connects to the hipbone that leaves men at high risk of severe hip fracture. Researchers are not certain why steroid use causes this specific injury, but they know that it is related to extremely high levels of testosterone in the body. ”
Steroids also present a significant danger when mixed with other drugs. For one thing, steroids actually diminish the effects of many other drugs, which can lead users to take higher doses than they normally would and greatly increases the risk of an accidental overdose.
People who abuse steroids will often do so in combination with stimulants such as Adderall or even cocaine to increase their energy as part of their overall performance enhancement. However, steroid abuse already puts an unhealthy amount of stress on the heart and coupled with the extra strain caused by stimulant use, the chances of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure are all extremely high.
Finally, many people already struggling with a steroid addiction will become dependent on opioids as well in an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of insomnia and aggression that chronic steroid abuse can cause. Roughly nine percent of men with a dependence on heroin reported that they started taking it to try to cope with the symptoms of steroid abuse.
Steroid Abuse Fast Facts
- Roughly 4 in 10 teens who were reported as using steroids said their decision to use was inspired by professional athletes they knew were taking steroids.
- Only about 20 percent of high schools in the United States administer drug tests to their athletes.
- In a survey of high school and college-aged males conducted in 2013, more than three-fourths of the young men reported that the use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids among pro athletes puts pressure on young athletes to also use.