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A Dangerous Game

Young athletes who take 'performance enhancers' could be big losers

SUNDAY, Oct. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In the world of college athletics, keeping up with the competition can mean more than just practicing as hard and often as the other athletes. It often means taking the same performance enhancers.

Despite years of warnings by health officials and the emergence of drug screenings, demand for both legal and illegal enhancers appears as high as ever. And that demand is filtering down to younger and younger athletes.

And despite well-documented risks that range from hair loss to cardiovascular disease, the use of perhaps the most notorious performance enhancer -- anabolic steroids -- is evident among athletes in high and even middle schools. According to a 1999 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.7 percent of eighth- and 10th-graders and 2.9 percent of 12th-graders had taken steroids at least once in their lives.

Among the other side effects of steroid use in males are a decrease in size of the testes and diminished sex drive. In females, there can be a disruption of the menstrual cycle, and the development of facial hair and other masculine features, such as a deeper voice, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And in both sexes, the drugs are linked to more aggressive behavior.

Fortunately, spotting a youth who's taking steroids can be quite easy, says Dr. Edward Wojtys, director of the University of Michigan Health System's MedSport.

"When you see an athlete who gains 20 pounds of muscle-mass very quickly, over a couple months in the summer, while that doesn't have to be steroid use, it certainly could be," Wojtys says. "And if there's any doubt, a physician's exam and a drug test would be the way to go."

Manufactured mostly in Europe, steroids are, like street drugs, sold here illegally. So where do kids get them?

"If you go to any large gym where people go to bulk up, you can get steroids," says Wojtys. "There's a pretty good underground and you can get what you want on the street."

Wojtys also says there's concern about the unknown effects of legal, so-called "safe" sports supplements that promise peak performance and have even been recommended by some coaches.

"A major problem with many supplements is the fact that they're not controlled by the government," says Wojtys. "So, many times when you buy something off the shelf, you really don't know what you're putting into your body. And to me, that's very scary."

One of the supplements most popular with some young athletes is creatine, sold in many health food stores. Although some studies have shown that the substance can improve muscle and performance, others have shown more dangerous results.

"When creatine is processed by the body, it forms formaldehyde, a very toxic substance often used as a preservative that can damage everything from artery walls to muscle," says Wojtys.

Dr. James Carpenter is team physician for the University of Michigan. He says that besides questions about the ingredients of supplements and potential side effects, the lack of Food and Drug Administration regulation means they aren't subjected to the rigorous process of proving that they work.

"In many cases, the claims of enhanced performance are not substantiated by controlled studies or even very close scrutiny," he says.

A big part of the problem, Wojtys adds, is a competitive spirit that, for some, translates into a win-at-any-cost mentality.

He says there was a study done in the late 1980s at one of the Olympic Games. Athletes were asked the following question: If there was a drug they could take that they knew was illegal and could kill them in five years but would guarantee their winning a gold medal, would they take it?

"And something like 68 percent of participants said 'Yes.' So that gives you an idea of the mindset of some of these people," he says.

"For young kids, I think the thing to keep in mind is that one day, your athletic career is going to end," Wojtys adds. "And when that ends, you still need your body. If you've destroyed it by using substances that have changed that metabolism and the hormonal balance, you're the one that's going to be stuck living with that body for the rest of your life."

What to Do: Read more about one of the most popular anabolic steroids, GHB, in this Prevention Alert from The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse offers extensive information on anabolic steroid abuse.

SOURCES: Interviews with Edward Wojtys, M.D., director, University of Michigan Health System's MedSport, and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, UM Medical School; James Carpenter, M.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery, and team physician for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Michigan press release, National Institute on Drug Abuse press releases
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