Anabolic steroids are prescription-only medicines that are sometimes taken illegally to increase muscle mass and improve athletic performance.
If used in this way, they can cause serious side effects and addiction.
Anabolic steroids are manufactured drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone. They have limited medical uses and aren’t to be confused with corticosteroids, a different type of steroid drug that’s commonly prescribed for a variety of conditions.
This page explains the dangers of misusing anabolic steroids and aims to advise and support those who are addicted to the drugs. It covers:
why people misuse anabolic steroids
how they are taken
Why people misuse anabolic steroids
Anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing drugs that increase muscle mass and decrease fat, as well as causing many undesirable effects (see below).
Some athletes, weightlifters and bodybuilders take them regularly to improve their physical performance and build up their bodies.
However, people of all ages have been known to misuse these drugs, including adolescent boys who suffer from body dysmorphia (an anxiety disorder where the way someone thinks about their body doesn’t match the way it looks).
Teenage boys and young men may take the drugs because they have “reverse anorexia”. This is when they don’t see themselves as being physically big enough or strong enough.
Some people believe that taking anabolic steroids will help them become fit and healthy. This isn’t true. Taking anabolic steroids is a dangerous drug habit.
How anabolic steroids are taken
Anabolic steroids are usually injected into the muscle, but some are available in tablet form, or as creams or gels that are applied to the skin.
Most people who use anabolic steroids are aware of the dangers of taking them, and have ways of getting the desired effect without the undesirable side effects. This involves injecting the drugs for a period of time and then stopping for a rest period before starting again. This is known as “cycling”.
More than one type of anabolic steroid may be used at a time. Users believe that this increases the effectiveness. This is known as “stacking”.
The term “pyramiding” refers to a combination of both stacking and cycling. One or more anabolic steroids is taken in a low dose. This is gradually increased to a maximum dose over 6-12 weeks, before the dose is reduced to zero to give the body a break and the cycle is started again.
Users tend to exercise more when they’re taking high doses to make the most of their improved performance during this time.
Athletes have been known to try to time their injections so the drug is out of their system by the time they’re drug tested.
Side effects of anabolic steroids
Regularly taking anabolic steroids causes a range of male features, not just increased muscle mass. It can also lead to potentially dangerous medical conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart attacks.
Effects of anabolic steroids in men include:
reduced sperm count
increased risk of developing prostate cancer
splayed teeth and overgrowth of the forehead (giving an ‘incredible hulk’ appearance)
In women, anabolic steroids can cause:
facial hair growth and body hair
loss of breasts
swelling of the clitoris
a deepened voice
an increased sex drive
problems with periods
In addition, both men and women who take anabolic steroids can develop any of the following medical conditions:
heart attack or stroke
liver or kidney tumours
high blood pressure (hypertension)
Misusing anabolic steroids can also cause the following psychological or emotional effects:
hallucinations and delusions
Stunted growth in adolescents
Anabolic steroids accelerate bone growth, so if they’re misused by adolescents who haven’t yet had the growth spurt associated with puberty, they can cause premature ageing of the bones and restricted growth.
Like many other substances, anabolic steroids are addictive. This means you can crave the drug, require more to get the same effect and have withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking them.
A person who is addicted to anabolic steroids will continue using them despite experiencing unpleasant physical side effects.
When doctors prescribe steroid medication, they always advise coming off the medication slowly, by gradually reducing the dose. Coming off anabolic steroids suddenly can result in withdrawal symptoms that include:
depression and apathy
feelings of anxiety
decreased sex drive
fatigue (extreme tiredness)
muscle and joint pain
You should see your GP if you think you’re addicted to anabolic steroids.
Treatment for an addiction to anabolic steroids will be similar to that of other types of addiction.
Your GP may refer you to a specially trained drugs counsellor. They’ll discuss your addiction with you, how to safely stop taking steroids, any obstacles you may face when trying to stop, plus strategies for dealing with those obstacles.
For more information and advice see:
Treating addiction Q&A
Drugs: getting help
Drug addiction support services
Athletes, weightlifters and bodybuilders sometimes take anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass and improve performance
Misuse of Drugs Act
Anabolic steroids are categorised as class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971).
In the UK, it’s possible to be prosecuted for possessing steroids that aren’t prescribed for a medical use. It’s also an offence to sell or supply steroids to someone else, and to possess them with intent to supply (which includes giving them to friends). The penalty is a maximum of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine.