Anabolic steroids are prescription-only medicines that are sometimes taken illegally to increase muscle mass and athletic performance. If used in this way, they can cause serious side effects and addiction.
Anabolic steroids are manufactured drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone. They have limited medical uses and are not to be confused with corticosteroids, a different type of steroid drug commonly prescribed for a variety of conditions.
This page explains the dangers of misusing anabolic steroids and aims to advise and support those who are addicted to the drugs. It covers:
- why people misuse anabolic steroids
- how they are taken
- side effects
- getting help
Why people misuse anabolic steroids
Anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing drugs that increase muscle mass and decrease fat, as well as producing many undesirable effects. Read more about the side effects of anabolic steroids.
Some athletes, weightlifters and bodybuilders take them regularly to improve their physical performance and build up their bodies.
However, people of all ages have been known to abuse these drugs. This includes adolescent boys who suffer from body dysmorphia (when the way someone thinks of their body doesn't match the way it looks). Teenage boys and young men may take the drugs because they have 'reverse anorexia'. This is when they don't see themselves as being physically big enough or strong enough.
Some people believe that taking anabolic steroids is a way of getting healthy and fit. This is not true. Taking anabolic steroids is a dangerous drug habit.
How they are taken
Anabolic steroids are usually injected into the muscle, but can sometimes be taken as tablets or as a cream or gel applied to the skin.
Most users are aware of the dangers of taking the drugs, and have ways of getting the desired effect without the undesirable side effects. This involves injecting the drugs for a period of time, then stopping for a rest period before starting again. This is known as 'cycling'.
More than one type of anabolic steroid may be used at a time. Users believe that this increases the effectiveness. This is known as 'stacking'.
The term 'pyramiding' refers to a combination of both stacking and cycling. One or more anabolic steroids is taken in a low dose. This is gradually increased to a maximum dose over 6-12 weeks, before the dose is reduced to zero to give the body a break and the cycle is started again.
Users tend to exercise more when they are taking high doses, to make the most of their better performance during this time.
Athletes have been known to try to time their injections so the drug is out of their system by the time they are drug tested.
Side effects of anabolic steroids
Regularly taking anabolic steroids causes a range of male features, not just increased muscle mass. It may also result in a potentially dangerous medical condition, such as high blood pressure or a heart attack.
Effects of anabolic steroids in men include:
- reduced sperm count
- shrinking of testicles
- breast development
- increased risk of developing prostate cancer
- splayed teeth and overgrowth of the forehead (giving an 'incredible hulk' appearance)
- severe acne
In women, anabolic steroids can cause:
- growth of facial and body hair
- loss of breasts
- swelling of the clitoris
- a deepened voice
- an increased sex drive
- problems with periods
- hair loss
- severe acne
In addition, both men and women who take anabolic steroids can develop any of the following medical conditions:
- heart attack or stroke
- liver or kidney tumours
- high blood pressure
- blood clots
- fluid retention
- high cholesterol
Misusing anabolic steroids can also cause the following psychological or emotional effects:
- aggressive behaviour
- mood swings
- manic behaviour
- hallucinations and delusions
Stunted growth in adolescents
Anabolic steroids accelerate bone growth, so if they are misused by adolescents who have not yet had the growth spurt associated with puberty, the drugs can cause premature ageing of the bones and restricted growth.
Addiction to anabolic steroids
Like many other substances, anabolic steroids are addictive. This means you can crave the drug, require more to get the same effect and have withdrawal effects if you suddenly stop taking them, with a strong desire to take them again. Someone addicted to anabolic steroids will continue to use the drugs despite experiencing unpleasant physical side effects.
When doctors prescribe any type of steroid medication, they advise coming off the drugs by gradually reducing the dose. Coming off anabolic steroids suddenly can result in withdrawal symptoms that include:
- depression and apathy
- feelings of anxiety
- difficulty concentrating
- decreased sex drive
- muscle and joint pain
If you think you may be addicted to anabolic steroids, see your doctor. You may need to be referred to a counsellor. Anabolic steroid abuse is treated like any other drug or alcohol addiction.