Most people may associate steroid abuse with competitive athletes, but in reality anabolic steroids have become a problem across many different populations, including teenagers. While the pursuit of performance and appearance is certainly a large factor in steroid abuse, growing evidence now suggests that addiction also plays a role in driving some individuals to repeated and excessive use in the face of significant health risks.
What Are Anabolic Steroids?
Anabolic steroids – properly called anabolic-androgenic steroids – are synthetic compounds similar to the male sex hormone testosterone. Like testosterone, anabolic steroids promote skeletal muscle and the growth of male sexual features. Muscle growth is the anabolic effect of the compounds, while the growth of sexual characteristics is the androgenic effect. Scientists first created anabolic steroids in the 1930s as a tool for treating hypogonadism – a condition in which the male testes are unable to produce sufficient testosterone. In individuals with hypogonadism, the testes are underdeveloped and do not produce enough hormone for sexual function. Steroids were also used to treat delayed puberty, impotence, and muscle wasting due to degenerative diseases. In the years following the arrival of anabolic steroids, researchers discovered that the compounds could be used to grow muscle mass in lab animals. Following these results, bodybuilders and weight lifters quickly became the first people to use and abuse steroids. Over the decades, steroid use has evolved to become a recreational as well as a competitive drug.
The Risks of Steroid Abuse
Anabolic steroids have been linked to a variety of physical and mental health concerns. Some of the potential consequences of steroid use may be reversible if steroid use ceases, but other consequences can be permanent. As artificial hormones, anabolic steroids disrupt the natural balance of hormones in the human body. While steroids can be used to cure some genetic hormonal imbalances, the addition of hormones to healthy bodies can create some of the same problems that steroids are used to treat. Men may experience testicular atrophy (shrinking of the testicles) and reduced sperm production. These changes will usually reverse if steroid use ceases. Permanent changes may include male pattern baldness and male breast development. In women, using anabolic steroids results in an increase in masculine characteristics. Skin becomes more coarse, body fat decreases, breast size decreases, body hair grows thicker, and male pattern baldness can develop. Many of these changes are irreversible if steroid use is protracted. Steroids can cause damage to the cardiovascular system, resulting in increased risk of heart disease or stroke. They also increase the likelihood of blood clot formation, which can cause damage to the heart. Steroids can cause liver tumors and cysts, which may cause internal bleeding. Anabolic steroids can have some unattractive side effects such as acne and oily skin. Steroid users also run the risk of infection through using shared needles or through contaminated steroid preparations.
Are Anabolic Steroids Addictive?
Information on the addictive potential of steroids is still very new, and neither the American Society of Addiction Medicine or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders officially recognize steroid addiction at this time. Nevertheless, the volume of evidence is growing and rapidly gaining wider acceptance. Two primary factors strongly support the addictive hypothesis for steroid abuse. The first is the behavior of some steroid abusers as they continue to seek out and use the hormones, and the second is the arrival of withdrawal symptoms when steroid abusers stop using. Steroid use typically begins because individuals hope to improve their athletic performance or their appearance. Many users feel that they are more physically attractive with larger muscle mass, while others may suffer from a condition called muscle dysmorphia in which they see themselves as scrawny and weak when they are actually very muscular. This affliction is similar to the cognitive bias that leads people with eating disorders to see themselves as overweight when they are very thin. Like other forms of addicts, many steroid abusers continue to pursue steroids despite the serious health concerns. Many varieties of steroids are illegal, and users put themselves at legal and monetary risk as well as physical risk. This high risk, high consequence pursuit of a substance is strongly indicative of true addiction. Steroid abusers also experience withdrawal symptoms upon quitting, another strong indicator of addiction. Steroid withdrawal symptoms include low sex drive, loss of appetite, mood swings, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.