Believe it or Not, Steroids Have an Actual Medical Use

The other day I was listening to a national sports-talk radio show and they were discussing an prominent athelete's recent injury.  They were expressing concern that the doctor who was treating the athlete (succesfully, it seemed) had treated other non-ahtlete patients with HGH and steroids.

Well, duh.  This is what has driven me crazy about the whole steroid craze.  Steroids were not invented to as sports performance enhancing drugs.  They were invented because they had a variety of medical uses, including aiding recovery from certain injuries.   Is the sports world really better off if we deny, say, Tiger Woods the injury-recovery tools that any non-athlete would have access to?

I will add here, just to tick people off and highlight yet another area where I am grossly out of step from the rest of America, that I have no particular problem with PED's in sports.  It's fine if governing bodies for whatever reason want to ban them, but its not a straight forward case to me.  These drugs have dangers, but getting our panties in a knot about people's informed choices on these dangers seems hypocritical to me as we routinely attend sports that have been demonstrated to cause, for example, major brain damage in athletes (e.g. football, hockey, boxing).

I suppose I get the comparability issue (people like records from 1900 to be comparable to those today) but to some extent this is outright hypocrisy as well.  Don't modern training techniques, like altitude sleeping chambers, equally make a mockery of comparability?  Baseball cries the most about steroids messing up the record books, then it does stuff like lower the pitching mound to help hitters and add the DH.

On the plus side, isn't there value to seeing our athletes play longer?  Wouldn't it be nice (if you are not a Red Sox fan) to see Derek Jeter play a little longer?  To see Tiger Woods return quicker from injuries?

And don't even get me started on the government's campaign to throw steroid users like Barry Bonds in jail.  As I said earlier, I don't have a particular problem if private governing bodies choose, for competitive or marketing reasons, to ban PED's and enforce that ban within their community.  But throwing Barry Bonds in jail for choice he made with his own body?

  • http://www.emergentfool.com Kevin Dick

    I've always said that there are only two reasonable policies here:

    (1) Allow athletes to do anything they want to improve their performance.

    (2) Set limits on whatever measurable intermediate performance variables you think are important, regardless of how they achieve them. So on the day you compete, there are limits to your serum hemoglobin, testosterone, HGH, etc. If you took drugs but are under the limit, you're fine. If you didn't take drugs but are over the limit, you're out (so you might even take drugs to _reduce_ these levels).

    Now, I realize (2) doesn't seem "fair" in some sense. But we already sort of do this--we reject women from competition with anomalous sexual genetics that might give them some male-like performance characteristics.

  • http://thegameiam.wordpress.com David

    I recently had to take prednisone for a severe inflammation. It's a wonder drug, but there sure are some unpleasant side effects (severe hunger, mood swings, general grumpiness). All told, it was certainly worth it. I presume the same logic would apply to Woods, Bonds, et al.

  • chuck martel

    Drugs are certainly an issue in sports performance but what about surgery? Baseball players are undergoing elective eye surgery to improve their vision and hopefully raise their batting averages.

  • ChevalierdeJohnstone

    Well put. In fact the government cannot even claim that athletes' use of Schedule III drugs, when prescribed by a licensed professional, is illegal - since it's not. (In fact the claim, in Bonds' case, was that he 'obstructed justice' while being charged with lying about something that, in fact, the prosecution could not prove was a lie.)

    If an athlete's contract with his employer precludes him from using steroids, then doing so is of course a breach of contract, and he can be fired. The government surely does not have any legal interest in such a private dispute.

    One wonders why Bonds' attorneys did not counsel him to not answer any questions at all, ever, no matter what. Or if they did, why he chose to ignore that advice. One wonders why any suspect or defendant would ever choose to open their mouth other than to say, "I am happy to cooperate with you. Please speak with my attorneys."

  • Kevin R

    I'm a Red Sox fan. With how badly Jeter has been hitting this year, I'm fine with him playing for the Yankees as long as he wants.

  • Noah

    The primary argument against anabolic steroids is not setting a standard of acceptable use for kids primarily boys in high school. If you accept no advertising of cigarettes where kids can see the ads, then you have to accept the ban on anabolic steroids.

  • John D

    Although I agree with the sentiments regarding use of steroids, technically Bonds was indicted for lying to a grand jury about using steroids, not for using steroids.

  • http://myweeklycrime.wordpress.com Elliot

    If you weren't "grossly out of step from the rest of America" you wouldn't be such an excellent source of information and opinion.

  • http://www.blog.horton-brasses.com Orion

    I am in agreement-but yet-what about high school kids (boys in particular)? That is the only issue to me. How does this affect teenage boys? Yes, kids and the parents are responsible-but c'mon-competitive high school boys will absolutely take steroids. They already do. Considering how boys are at that age-they will take lots of them and lots of those kids will have huge health consequences and many more will die. I think that is what drives lawmakers to get involved. Or at least, it should be what drives them to get involved. All that aside, pretty much everyone on this site is going to agree that grown adults should be able to do pretty much anything to their bodies that they darn well want to. Given a choice-would you watch the juicehead baseball league or the "clean" league? How about the Tour de France with or without EPO? I know which ones would provide more viewing pleasure.

    On an aside-I ready somewhere once that the vast majority of steroid users were single men in their 30's with higher incomes who take them primarily for aesthetics. IE, they want to look good. I get that.

  • Ross

    In my mind - the line gets blurred when we use public financing to build private stadiums. At that point, the "league" or "private governing bodies" should be subject government interference. It should not have to be said but I will anyway, governments should not be in the business of funding private stadiums.

  • http://dullgeek.blogspot.com dullgeek

    I think the economics of banning PED's within a league is this. If some players start taking PEDs, competition amongst the players will quickly drive all players to take PEDs. Whatever advantage the initial set gained will eventually be washed out when all are taking PEDs. But at the same time, all will incur the health risks associated with PEDs.

    As a result the league bans them for all in order to prevent this race back to an equilibrium in which all players are worse off.

    I'm not claiming that there are necessarily negative health impacts associated with PEDs. I'm claiming that since the league believes there are, this is why it does it.

  • http://www.blog.horton-brasses.com Orion

    The leagues couldn't care less about the health of the players. They are primarily worried that the fans will stop watching because it won't be identifiable. The crackdown is all about keeping fans happy. If the top players juice, then everyone has to, just to keep a spot. That trickles all the way down to the high school player.

  • perlhaqr

    Considering how boys are at that age-they will take lots of them and lots of those kids will have huge health consequences and many more will die.

    Think of it as evolution in action.

  • Dr. T

    @David: Predisone, cortisone, cortisol, hydrocortisone, etc. are NOT anabolic steroids, and they aren't banned for athletes. These drugs are corticosteroids that have anti-inflammatory effects.

    The banned drugs are testosterone and other anabolic steroids that increase muscle mass, bone density, and blood hemoglobin.

  • Doug

    David: along the lines of your testimony: in 2007, I had a bad case of bursitis in my shoulder. It tortured me for about 10 days before I self-diagnosed it, then went to my doctor to see if I was right. I was. He prescribed predisone for it, and almost immediately my pain dissipated. A week later the bursitis disappeared. Unfortunately, a month or two after that, my diaphragm stopped working on the right side, and has been dead ever since. Coincidence?

    You may remember a couple of years ago when Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized in Hawaii with heart attack-like symptoms. When that was all flushed out, Rush was describing how he got in this state, and it all began with his now-famous bad back pains (which a few years earlier resulted in his getting hooked on Oxycontin). Rush said that he was extremely reluctant to take prednisone for his back pain before he left for his Hawaiian vacation because the last time he took it, he went deaf 6 weeks later. Coincidence?

    My point is that while prednisone is indeed a wonder drug, I'm scared as hell to use it anymore. So scared that when another bout of bursitis materialized in my hip last year, I limped through it for two months rather than risk my other lung quitting on me.

    "Good stuff" sometimes comes at a price.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    Steroids should be mandatory in sports.

    I want a 200 HR season from somebody, and dumptruck-pressing 450lb linemen scaring the crap out of scrawny Tom Brady.

    But stay away from prednisone - gives you really wacky dreams. Not a fan.

  • DrTorch

    Great column. Great responses (especially re: LASIK)

    As for Bonds, this just shows how bigger gov't will always find some way to pin something on a person they don't care for.

    As for the boys taking PED...simple. The governing body of prep sports simply rules it illegal, and tests for it. Nothing new here.

  • Gil

    Since Libertarians want all drugs to be legalised, dickering over anabolic steroids, HGH, etc., is pointless.

  • JOdy

    I am in agreement-but yet-what about high school kids (boys in particular)? That is the only issue to me. How does this affect teenage boys?

    Orion: apply that logic to alcohol or anything else that is legal for adults though possibly harmful, but not legal for minors.

  • morganovich

    "I will add here, just to tick people off and highlight yet another area where I am grossly out of step from the rest of America, that I have no particular problem with PED’s in sports. It’s fine if governing bodies for whatever reason want to ban them, but its not a straight forward case to me. These drugs have dangers, but getting our panties in a knot about people’s informed choices on these dangers seems hypocritical to me as we routinely attend sports that have been demonstrated to cause, for example, major brain damage in athletes (e.g. football, hockey, boxing)."

    i'm not sure it's that simple.

    as someone who has played sports at the international level, i was always grateful for the PED bans.

    it prevents a sort of hobsian dilemma.

    if others are willing to take reckless chances with their bodies and suffer serious long term harm to be a better player for a few years, then you are faced with a rotten choice.

    either you stay clean and lose your spot or you go dirty too and hurt yourself.

    there will always be guys willing to go too far and this puts the contest onto a new and unfortunate level. the game should be about skill, talent, and training, not about who is willing to trade kidney and liver failure and future cancer for victory.

  • http://www.blog.horton-brasses.com Orion

    @Jody-good point.

  • tomw

    As a side comment to the use of LASIK, while perusing Navy pilot training stuff, I found that radial keratotomy was an acceptable procedure to improve eyesight, but LASIK was banned.
    For those of you that wanted to fly in the service, but didn't want to be a GIBS, but had inferior eyesight, don't undergo LASIK.
    I assume because of G-forces, the lens distorts because it has been shaved by laser???
    tom

  • caseyboy

    Saying that Bond's is going to jail for taking steroids is like saying Prez Clinton was disbarred for having sex with an intern. In fact they put themselves in legal jeopardy by lying under oath.

  • Uncle Bill

    I generally agree with you, but you are wrong on several points here. First, regardless of what you think of Bonds' use of drugs, the government is going after him for lying under oath, not for using drugs. No one, not even Bonds or Martha Stewart, should be allowed to get away with that. I wish we could go after some politicians for their lies.

    Also, the issue with drugs in sports is that some athletes will make risky or downright dangerous choices, in order to perform better. Those who choose not to take those risks will be at a competitive disadvantage. If we allow use of these drugs, some of our best athletes are going to be killing themselves, or suffering early deaths. Are you really saying that we should penalize people who choose to protect their health, by letting their opponents use them? And since sports really is a zero-sum game, the people who choose to protect their health are necessarily going to lose from that choice.

    If we allow use of these drugs, some of our best athletes are going to be killing themselves, or suffering early deaths, as a result. We are seeing this today, with some of the retired NFL players. (Supreme irony: I once found a copy of an old body-building magazine, with the cover story of Build Your Body the Lyle Alzado Way! Right...) But, in their playing days, they get to benefit from using illegal drugs.

    If athletes really need drugs to recover from injuries, then let them apply for a "medical necessity waiver," or something like that. They could be examined by an independent doctor, who would cut off the supply when it was no longer necessary. I bet you would find that the incidence of drug use is a lot lower than currently.

  • Jeff

    Dr. T in the comments is correct. You are missing the distinction of corticosteroids which are anti-inflammatory, used for injury and many medical issues, and actually cause loss of bone mass and many other negative problems (diabetes, wounds won't heal, hypertension, GI problems) when used in high doses or for a long time.

    Anabolic steroids are mostly illegal, have few and mostly questionable medical uses, and enhance performance. They also have very serious and dangerous side effects, particularly when used by teens and maturing people A doctor known to prescribe HGH and steroid almost certainly was providing anabolic steroids for performance enhancement (as growth hormone deficiency is rather rare in healthy adults), and should have their license revoked.

  • John

    I'm glad that steroids are available for medical use, I believe that they can do alot of good in that capacity. I'm not a fan of them for other purposes though. I've read too many bad things about side effects (see http://steroids-effects.com/ for a list).