Steroid Abuse

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Steroids are a class of compounds that share a similar chemical structure. This broad group of chemicals includes many normal substances in the body (such as cholesterol), vitamins (vitamin D), hormones (for example, the sex hormones and their derivatives), and drugs given to treat inflammation (hydrocortisone, prednisone). The adrenal glands secrete a number of steroid hormones, known as corticosteroids, that are important for the maintenance of blood pressure, blood glucose levels, salt and water balance, and other critical body processes. However, when we speak of steroid abuse by athletes, doctors are referring to the misuse of the so-called "anabolic steroids," which are manufactured drugs similar to the male sex hormone testosterone.

Anabolic steroids

The term anabolic refers to the muscle-building properties of these man-made substances. Available legally only by prescription, anabolic steroids are sometimes prescribed by doctors to treat conditions in which testosterone levels are abnormally low, or in certain chronic conditions such as AIDS that are associated with loss of muscle mass. Athletes, bodybuilders, and other people sometimes abuse anabolic steroids in order to improve performance and physical appearance.

Misuse of anabolic steroids is a hazardous practice with wide-ranging adverse effects. Some of the major documented side effects of steroid misuse are:

Quick GuideAddicted to Pills: The Health Risks of Drug Abuse

Addicted to Pills: The Health Risks of Drug Abuse

Aggression, mood swings, and other psychiatric side effects can also result from the abuse of anabolic steroids.

Along with the general health hazards of steroid abuse, gender-specific effects also occur. Men may experience:

Women who abuse steroids have androgenic, or masculinizing, side effects that can include:

  • growth of facial hair,
  • deepened voice,
  • menstrual abnormalities, and
  • male-pattern baldness.

For adolescents who have not yet experienced the typical growth spurt, anabolic steroid abuse can result in premature maturation of the skeletal system, meaning that teens who abuse steroids run the risk of having short stature for the rest of their lives.

It is possible to develop a physiological dependence upon steroids. Taking steroid drugs affects the functioning and hormone secretion pattern of the adrenal glands, since these glands are the source of many natural steroid hormones. For this reason, when doctors prescribe steroids, their discontinuation is always tapered (gradually taking smaller doses) to allow the adrenal glands to return to their normal pattern of function and secretion. Likewise, abrupt discontinuation of anabolic steroid use can also result in withdrawal symptoms that can be dangerous and even potentially fatal.

For more information, please read the Steroid Withdrawal article.

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Depression Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors