steering for steroids


Drenched in drugs
Beyond biking
Blood doping
Steroids 'n kids
'roid rage


Mark McGwire's thigh, er, arm.

© AP/Wide World Photos.


"Let's get the bat, the ball; oops I forgot the androstenedione!"

That's Yesalis's fear for the future of amateur sports.

Photo courtesy of North Kingstown Little League and Bruntout Productions.


X-ray of a Salter-Harris fracture. This common knee injury, resulting from steroid use, can permanently stifle growth in one leg.

This image is © The University of Iowa and Eric Brandser, M.D. Virtual Hospital® of The University of Iowa.


Starting young
Hormones, you'll recall, are chemicals that, in tiny doses, trigger changes in the body. Testosterone, for example, triggers the appearance of secondary sex characteristics in men at puberty. One of these characteristics is the growth of muscles -- a clarion-call to wanna-be athletic dopers.

Mark McGwire's pipe

To anybody who's seen an NFL front line or a pro wrestling match, it's not news that pro athletes are using steroids to build muscles. Although there are definite side effects like acne, kidney and liver problems and reduction of sperm formation, some observers dismiss this use of drugs as a business decision. It may be risky, but then adults are allowed to decide to smoke cigarettes or undertake risky occupations like mining, farming or professional scribbling.

kid baseball teamIt's unequivocally wrong to encourage use of performance-enhancing drugs in children.

But what about young people who idolize athletes? How will they respond if their heroes take drugs? Various national surveys find between 4 and 12 percent of teen-age boys -- mainly athletes -- taking steroids, says Charles Yesalis of Penn State University. Among teen-age girls, he says, the percentage ranges from 1 to 2 percent -- a figure that doubled during the 1990s.

Even experts who think that adult pro athletes may be justified in endangering their health with chemicals in order to make a living are worried about this trend. "That's my real concern," says Yesalis. "I don't lose sleep over adult athletes, but I don't take the same attitude with children... In my value system, it's unequivocally wrong" to encourage use of these drugs in children, he adds.

Performance-enhancing drugs have a "tremendous impact on young people," says Michael Meyers, associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Houston. "We talk about the health issues with older people. We'll see these problems [like bursitis and arthritis] earlier with young people using them."

Tearing up knees
Salter Harris fracture
Steroid problems can result when they create imbalances in the body. Normally, the process of athletic training strengthens the entire body in unison, so muscles, ligaments and tendons can all work together. But because steroids build muscle mass so quickly, the rest of the body cannot adjust quickly enough, Meyers says. "You get a tremendous increase in muscle mass, but the connective tissue does not catch up. The tendons and ligaments are not strong enough," causing such injuries as ligament tears.

Knees are a common victim of overdeveloped muscles, he says. Knee injuries may include a fracture of the femur, the bone connecting the hip to the knee. If the fracture affects the epiphyseal plate, the site where new bone actually grows, the body will grow a bony bridge across the plate, stunting growth in that leg. The other leg will continue growing, causing unequal leg length as the child matures. Although other steroid-induced joint injuries may heal better than this, Meyers says the joints are never "quite the same again."

Education = salvation?
If we want kids to avoid performance-enhancing drugs, the solution is to warn them of the dangers, right? Not always, Meyers says. "They tell kids about steroids, and the next thing they ask is, 'How do you use this, how do you administer it, and what dosage?'" In many cases, Meyers says, "the project backfires." Drug education to fight doping, he concludes, amounts to "putting a Band Aid on a bullet wound."

If not education, what else might work? Meyers says it would help if more adult athletes eschewed doping. "I think role modeling is most effective, but you have a lot of role models who are using these things." With pro athletes, he says, "You are dealing with financial security and endorsements," and drugs are common. In professional U.S. athletics, he says, "Anybody is trying to get that edge -- it's a lot more widespread than we take it for."

Other suggestions include testing at random, rather than testing only winners, and testing before competition, when steroids and other training drugs are more likely to be present.

Harrison Pope, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., who deals with steroid usage, says steroids benefit users because people admire their bodies. "If people could recognize a steroid user, and realize he was simply a product of the drug, and not a health, fit, dedicated athlete, that would help."

And how do you recognize a steroid user? "You cannot get bigger than a certain size without steroids," Pope insists. "Anybody who goes beyond that threshold and says he's not taking steroids is lying."

What do steroids do to your mind?

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The Why Files
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