Youth and Steroids -- a Deadly Combination

When Jason was first introduced to anabolic steroids as a freshman in high school, he was prepared to do anything to make the football team.

"I was training hard for the football team when I realized I weighed much less than my teammates," he said. "That semester I learned about 'S-Parties.'"

During these parties, Jason says, whose real name is being withheld at his request, guys on the team got together and took turns injecting each other in the backside with steroids.

The drugs made them stronger, more athletic, but they also came with chilling side effects.

"We all experienced the effects of the steroids: acne, bloating, insomnia, mood swings," he said. "Once in a while someone would hit the sciatic nerve and their legs would give out."

Steroid abuse led Jason and his friends to experiment further with an assortment of other drugs, both legal and illicit, to boost their athletic performance.

"Most guys would stack different drugs together for the most effect, either trying to gain or lose massive amounts of weight, depending on the time of year," he said. "We began to add other drugs to prevent the side effects. Some of the guys even started using cocaine to get charged up before games."

One morning, Jason awoke with a fever and an electric pain in his left leg. He went to the emergency department of a nearby hospital, where a doctor told him that he would need surgery to remove an abscess that had formed where he was injected with a dirty needle.

The surgeon was able to remove the dead tissue from Jason's leg, but he developed a life-threatening infection that required a long hospital stay.

"It took six months of rehabilitation to walk again, and I had to quit football," he said.

Considering Jason's ordeal, many may not realize that Jason is one of the lucky ones when it comes to youths who use anabolic steroids.

What Are Anabolic Steroids?

Anabolic steroids are a group of laboratory-made drugs designed to mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone. These drugs cause muscle and bone growth, as well as the development of male sexual characteristics.

While anabolic steroids are approved for some medical conditions, their usage requires close monitoring by a qualified health-care practitioner.

Recent studies show that 3 percent to 9 percent of teenagers illegally use steroids, with the highest rates reported in the middle school years. At this age, teens may become preoccupied with self-image, or they may face pressure to excel in athletics.

By using steroids, however, they expose themselves to a host of possible side effects, some of which can be deadly.

Short- and Long-Term Health Risks

Some of the short-term side effects of anabolic steroids include acne, infertility, hostility, anxiety and aggression.

Among women, steroids cause the development of male-pattern hair growth, infertility and irreversible hoarseness of the voice. Anabolic steroids can also increase levels of estrogen as the body tries to compensate for high levels of male dominant hormones. In men, this can cause hot flashes, testicular shrinkage, weight gain, bloating and the growth of fatty breast tissue.

Injecting something into your body also has risks. Unclean needles can cause serious infections and gangrene, and sharing needles can lead to the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis. If steroids are mistakenly injected into a nerve, they can cause extreme pain and paralysis of that part of the body.

The long-term effects of anabolic steroids are numerous. Over time, they can cause high blood pressure and male-pattern baldness in both men and women. If teenagers take them during puberty, they can permanently stunt their growth.

There is also an increased risk of heart disease, as well as liver and prostate cancer.

Perhaps most dangerous, however, are the psychological effects of abuse. Steroid users can have feelings of aggression, hostility, paranoia, and even delusions or hallucinations.

They are also more likely to be depressed or attempt suicide, especially while coming down from a cycle of use.

Other Performance-Enhancing Drugs of Abuse

In addition to anabolic steroids, there are many other recent additions to the market for illegal performance enhancers.

Recombinant human growth hormone, commonly referred to as "growth," is a naturally occurring substance produced by the human body to increase bone and ligament strength. Its abuse can cause deformities of the skull and facial bones, as well as severe damage to the heart.

Insulin is also injected by athletes to increase muscle mass, though at the risk of causing dangerously low blood sugar levels.

Illegal stimulants such as thyroxine, clenbuterol and cocaine are used for weight loss and endurance, but they can lead to seizures, strokes, heart attacks and even death.

More advanced users often take prescription medications to prevent the side effects of increased estrogen in the body. Certain drugs can prevent the buildup of estrogen, but they too have side effects, causing increased mood swings, hot flashes and bone fractures.

The drugs discussed in this article are being abused at increasing rates among adolescents, and none come without a price.

Parents and coaches need to be aware of the signs of abuse so they can help before serious and irreversible side effects occur.

If you think your child may be using steroids, speak to your child and speak with your child's doctor. Most importantly, get involved and get help.

These simple steps may go a long way in saving a young athlete's life.

"When I think back, I am grateful just to be alive," Jason said. "My only advice now is to never start. Steroids might seem like an easy answer at first, but things can quickly get out of control."

Avishkar Tyagi is a medical student at the University of South Florida. Dr. William S. Quillen is director of the USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences and the associate dean for the USF College of Medicine.