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Anabolic steroids: What are the side effects?

The long-term risk of heavy steroid use includes

The long-term risk of heavy steroid use includes high blood pressure, arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke and sudden cardiac death. Credit: Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated / Icon SMI

Q: Can you discuss the potential side effects of [anabolic] steroid use [as performance-enhancing drugs]? -- Brian Gallagher, Rockville Centre

A: There is no doubt anabolic steroids work. For the most part, those who take them become bigger and stronger -- anyone's normal eye can see that. The problem is that while they help sculpt the outside of the body, the opposite may be taking place in the body's interior. There are a ton of potential side effects, some more pronounced than others, that can cause irreversible physical damage and even death.

The most serious side effects usually affect the heart. According to a report by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, "heart damage appears to be the biggest long-term risk of heavy steroid use" -- high blood pressure, arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke and sudden cardiac death have all been reported.

The liver and kidneys also take a beating from anabolic steroid use. Liver toxicity, failure, tumors and jaundice have all been noted, while the kidneys have seen similar ailments such as failure and Wilms' tumor, the report said.

But the most visible side effects are found within the psychological, reproductive and dermatologic areas of the body. Aggression, irritability and dangerous/reckless behavior are often seen, according to the report, along with reduced sperm and testosterone production, shrinking of the testes, impotence and prostate enlargement in men.

Women can experience a deepening of the voice, hair growth on the face and body, baldness, irregular menstrual cycles and a reduction in breast size, the report said. Dermatologic side effects also include acne development, oily skin, enlarged breasts (in men) and stretch marks on the skin, according to the findings.

But that's not all: There's also the possibility of damage to the musculoskeletal system -- mostly tendons and bones -- due to the rapid increase in muscular size from the use of anabolic agents, the report said.

Brian T. Dessart is a nationally accredited Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a New York State Critical Care Emergency Medical Technician. He also writes for Sports Illustrated, covering performance, fitness and action sports. For a chance at having your questions answered, please send inquiries involving health, fitness and injury prevention to health@newsday.com.

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