Performance-Enhancing Supplements Threaten Sports

Know the dangers of steroid use among professional and amateur athletes

Baseball glove and baseball lying on the grass; baseball is among the sports for which athletes might jeopardize their health by taking performance enhancing supplements.

With the Padres near the top of the division, Lance Armstrong attempting a sixth Tour de France victory and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games just weeks away, some of our nation’s best athletes are shining bright.

Unfortunately, the rapidly growing use of steroids has cast a dark cloud over professional and amateur sports alike, affecting even high school athletics. According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 3.5 percent of high school seniors nationwide admit to using steroids.

It’s easy to understand the allure. The financial, social and celebrity aspects of a career in professional sports are unrivaled, and young athletes who excel at the high school level may have opportunities to play for college and, possibly, professional sports teams — especially if they catch the eye of a recruiter.

Considering some professional basketball and baseball players have been recruited right out of high school, it’s not surprising that some students are turning to steroids to become bigger, stronger or faster.

Health risks associated with steroid use

Moreover, steroid use may be more widespread in San Diego than other parts of the country due to our proximity to the border. In the 1970s, bodybuilders came down through San Diego to get daily steroid injections in Tijuana. In the early 1980s, daily injections gave way to injections that lasted a month.

Since then, manufacturers have developed oral forms of the drug. You need only go to your local vitamin store to find pills that are, essentially, precursors to steroids; once in the body, they are enzymatically converted into anabolic steroids. Anyone can buy them, regardless of age, and they are virtually untested and unregulated by the FDA or other governing agencies.

Frightening? Yes — especially when you consider the dangers down the road. Immediate health threats result from the increase in body mass and fluid retention, which can spike blood pressure to the heart, brain and kidneys.

Long-term use can bring on all of the side effects of hypertension and heart disease. In addition, steroid use also can aggravate behavioral problems, leading to escalating anger, aggression and “roid rage.”

Another disturbing effect can occur a month or two down the road. Case in point: A high school center fielder came into the emergency department with a fractured bone in his upper arm. He’d done nothing more than throw a ball really hard from the outfield — something he’d done thousands of times, but suddenly he had a fracture.

We found he’d had significant muscle development and weight gain over the last year, and he admitted to using steroids. Why the fracture? Although his muscles developed tremendously in a short period of time, the bones, tendons and ligaments did not. This disparity in development can lead to stress fractures and, ultimately, fractures of the bones themselves.

Aside from the health issues, steroid use is a threat to the preservation of true amateur and professional sport competition — it undermines the integrity of the athletic community. The thrill of seeing a baseball player hit the ball out of the park or an athlete set a new world record is diminished when it is revealed that they are steroid users.

Warning signs of steroid use among athletes

How do you know if your high school athlete is using steroids? Look for warning signs. Substantial changes in weight and size over a short period of time are most telling. A young adult in his developmental years could probably gain a maximum of six to 10 percent of his lean body mass within a given year. So when he leaves high school as a junior on June 15 and returns on August 15 with a rock-hard weight gain of 15 pounds, that’s a sign.

Be aware of changes in skin texture, such as acne, or changes in behavior, such an increased temper or aggression. Steroid use tends to happen in groups. If you find that one student is using, it’s highly likely that others are as well.

Fortunately, a handful of concerned lawmakers and governing organizations are taking action. The International Olympic Committee maintains a zero-tolerance policy for drug use among competitors and, recently, California Senator Jackie Speier proposed a bill that would require school districts to pay for steroid testing among high school athletes.

While this proposal can be cost-prohibitive, it may be an important first step to getting our arms around the problem and raising awareness among parents, coaches and schools.