Age old problem: as early as the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, athletes have been altering training and dietary regimens to enhance performance. Particularly in today's society where professional athletes can make millions of dollars a year and are treated like celebrities, the temptation to gain a competitive edge is rife. And athletes are trying to gain that critical edge.
Anabolic steroids were first used to enhance muscle mass in the 1940s and throughout the 1950s and 1960s their use was rampant in sports. In 1967, the International Olympic Committee was the first sports organization to ban steroids.
Major League Baseball first came under fire in 2002 when a former MVP, Ken Caminiti, told Sports Illustrated that at least half the players were using steroids. This was followed by a tell-all book by Jose Canseco corroborating Caminiti's comments. Recently, baseball's all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds, was indicted in connection with the use of performance enhancing drugs. Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell is leading the investigation of steroid use in baseball.
Anabolic-androgenic steroids are synthetic derivatives of the male hormone, testosterone. Anabolic comes from the Greek meaning "to build," with androgenic meaning "masculinizing." Steroids are occasionally prescribed by doctors to treat certain medical conditions, such as hypogonadism or impotence. They work by increasing protein synthesis in muscle cells, stimulating the body to release endogenous growth hormone, and reversing the effects of the body's naturally occurring cortisol, which is a catabolic hormone. A net effect of these actions is increased muscle mass and strength.
When baseball's steroid scandal hit the news, Jimmy Kimmel joked that "Former baseball star Jose Canseco has a new book out. It's a tell-all biography in which he claims he injected his former teammate -- superstar Mark McGwire -- with steroids....Mark McGwire vehemently denies the accusation -- he got so angry when he heard about it, he picked up his house and threw it onto the freeway." The problem is that the potential side effects of anabolic steroids are not laughing matters.
"High blood pressure, increased cholesterol, acne, clotting disorders, liver damage, depression, and psychosis are but a few of the adverse effects of steroids," says Dr. Joshua Dines, a sports orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Joe DiMaggio Sports Medicine Center in Manhattan. Men may report impotence, development of breasts and shrinking of their testicles. Females may experience masculinization, including facial hair growth and menstrual cycle abnormalities. In children, anabolic steroids can cause premature growth arrest.
And, while rare, fatal effects have been reported. "Athletes have died of strokes and heart attacks secondary to prolonged steroid use" adds Dr. Dines. There is also one reported case of a bodybuilder who contracted HIV by sharing needles used for steroid injections.
Ironically, athletes that take steroids to improve performance set themselves up for other sports-related injuries. Dr. Dines further comments that "anabolic androgenic steroid use can alter the microscopic structure of tendons, increasing their risk of rupturing." Achilles tendon, quadriceps tendon and distal biceps tendon tears have all been associated with steroid use." Another potential effect of steroid use occurs when athletes stop using them. The muscle strength gained by steroids helps protect ligaments and tendons that are exposed to excessive strains by athletes involved in repetitive motions, such as throwing. When the steroids are discontinued, the muscles lose some of their strength, increasing the stresses seen by the ligaments. According to Dr. Dines, "Though anecdotal, we are seeing an increasing number of elbow ligament injuries in throwers, which may be due to some players no longer using steroids."
The problem is not isolated to professional sports. Some high-school athletes view using steroids as their ticket to a college scholarship; and a number of college athletes take steroids to increase their chances of turning professional. A review by the "American Academy of Pediatrics" found that anabolic steroid use by adolescent athletes was as high as 11 percent for boys. And, in 2005, a study by the Center for Disease Control reported that 6.1 percent of high school students had taken anabolic steroids.
Very soon, the Mitchell Commission will report their findings on such drug abuse, possibly "naming names" of many major league baseball players that are currently revered by millions of Americans. While it is unclear how the report will affect the way we as a society view this generation of baseball players, what is certain is that the illegal use of anabolic steroids is dangerous for both the user and those that view these athletes as role models. And all to the detriment of sports and those who enjoy them. Dr. Dines quips that "using these drugs is a sure way to end up in the loss column."
Read more news and blog posts on the Mitchell report on steroids in baseball here.