Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced variants of the naturally occurring male hormone testosterone. Both males and females have testosterone produced in their bodies: males in the testes, and females in the ovaries and other tissues. The full name for this class of drugs is androgenic (promoting masculine characteristics) anabolic (tissue building) steroids (the class of drugs). Some of the common street (slang) names for anabolic steroids include arnolds, gym candy, pumpers, roids, stackers, weight trainers, and juice.(1)
Currently, there are more than 100 different types of anabolic steroids that have been developed, and each requires a prescription to be used legally in the United States.(2)
Anabolic steroids can be taken orally, injected intramuscularly, or rubbed on the skin when in the form of gels or creams.(3) These drugs are often used in patterns called cycling, which involves taking multiple doses of steroids over a specific period of time, stopping for a period, and starting again. Users also frequently combine several different types of steroids in a process known as stacking.(4) By doing this, users believe that the different steroids will interact to produce an effect on muscle size that is greater than the effects of using each drug individually.(5)
Another mode of steroid use is called "pyramiding." With this method users slowly escalate steroid use (increasing the number of drugs used at one time and/or the dose and frequency of one or more steroids), reach a peak amount at mid-cycle and gradually taper the dose toward the end of the cycle. The escalation of steroid use can vary with different types of training. Body builders and weight lifters tend to escalate their dose to a much higher level than do long distance runners or swimmers.(6)
Arnolds, gym candy, pumpers, roids, stackers, weight trainers, gear, and juice.
Anabolic steroid abuse has been associated with a wide range of adverse side effects ranging from some that are physically unattractive, such as acne and breast development in men, to others that are life threatening. Most of the effects are reversible if the abuser stops taking the drug, but some can be permanent. In addition to the physical effects, anabolic steroids can also cause increased irritability and aggression.(7)
Most data on the long-term effects of anabolic steroids on humans come from case reports rather than formal epidemiological studies. From the case reports, the incidence of life-threatening effects appears to be low, but serious adverse effects may be under-recognized or under-reported. Data from animal studies seem to support this possibility. One study found that exposing male mice for one-fifth of their lifespan to steroid doses comparable to those taken by human athletes caused a high percentage of premature deaths.(8)
Steroid abuse has been associated with cardiovascular diseases (CVD), including heart attacks and strokes, even in athletes younger than 30. Steroids contribute to the development of CVD, partly by changing the levels of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the blood. Steroids, particularly the oral types, increase the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and decrease the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). High LDL and low HDL levels increase the risk of atherosclerosis, a condition in which fatty substances are deposited inside arteries and disrupt blood flow. If blood is prevented from reaching the heart, the result can be a heart attack. If blood is prevented from reaching the brain, the result can be a stroke.(9)
Steroids also increase the risk that blood clots will form in blood vessels, potentially disrupting blood flow and damaging the heart muscle so that it does not pump blood effectively.(10)
For purposes of illegal use there are several sources; the most common illegal source is from smuggling steroids into the United States from other countries such as Mexico and European countries. Smuggling from these areas is easier because a prescription is not required for the purchase of steroids. Less often steroids found in the illicit market are diverted from legitimate sources (e.g. thefts or inappropriate prescribing) or produced in clandestine laboratories.(11)
Results from the 2005 Monitoring the Future Study, which surveys students in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades, show that 1.7% of eighth graders, 2.0% of tenth graders, and 2.6% of twelfth graders reported using steroids at least once in their lifetimes.(12)
Regarding the ease by which one can obtain steroids, 18.1% of eighth graders, 29.7% of tenth graders, and 39.7% of twelfth graders surveyed in 2005 reported that steroids were "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain. During 2005 56.8% of twelfth graders surveyed reported that using steroids was a "great risk."(13)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also conducts a survey of high school students throughout the United States, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) 4.8% of all high school students surveyed by CDC in 2005 reported lifetime use of steroid pills/shots without a doctor's prescription.(14)
In December 2005, DEA led the largest steroid bust in history. Operation Gear Grinder was a 21-month investigation that targeted eight major steroid manufacturing companies, their owners, and their trafficking associates. To learn more about the operation, click here.
Federal law placed anabolic steroids in Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as of February 27, 1991. The possession or sale of anabolic steroids without a valid prescription is illegal. Simple possession of illicitly obtained anabolic steroids carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a minimum $1,000 fine if this is an individual’s first drug offense. The maximum penalty for trafficking is five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if this is the individual’s first felony drug offense. If this is the second felony drug offense, the maximum period of imprisonment and the maximum fine both double. While the above listed penalties are for federal offenses, individual states have also implemented fines and penalties for illegal use of anabolic steroids.(15)
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and many professional sports leagues (e.g. Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League (NFL), and National Hockey League) have banned the use of steroids by athletes, both because of their potential dangerous side effects and because they give the user an unfair advantage. The IOC, NCAA, and NFL have also banned the use of steroid precursors (e.g. androstenedione) by athletes for the same reason steroids were banned. The IOC and professional sports leagues use urine testing to detect steroid use both in and out of competition.(16)
The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 - placed 32 additional steroids in Schedule III and expanded DEA’s regulatory and enforcement authority regarding steroids.
Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Diversion Control, Anabolic
Steroids: Hidden Dangers, March 2004
Last updated: August 2006