Steroids: Seductive Today, Sinister Tomorrow
An Appointment and Cautionary Tale
I got a new patient who came into my office- we’ll call him Rocky- and he said to me, “Ya know, I’m here because I’ve been having trouble with rage.” And then he just looks at me expectantly. After eleven words, he’s waiting for me to open my desk drawer and take out my magic wand. Bing! You’re cured! He’s clearly never been to a shrink. We talk here.
In all honesty, I didn’t even need a magic wand at that point, because between those eleven words and my eyes, I had already diagnosed him. I should’ve waved my pen at him like a wand and said “Stop using steroids. You’re cured.” Instead, I said, “Let’s explore this a bit.”
He says “I’m worried, I might be bipolar….” How did I just know he was going to say that? It is so typical. At 32 years of age, Rocky’s a big boy, unnaturally bulky, looks like he’s been lifting a lot of weights. Compared to his trunk, his head looks like somebody washed it in hot water. His face is oily, pock-marked with acne and scars. I’m noting all these things, jotting them down on my pad, jot jot, as he goes on. “…and I like to go to the gym to blow off some steam…” Rages jot. Acne jot. Oily skin jot jot. Bacne jot. Receding hairline jot jot. “…and lately everybody just pisses me off and I can’t…” Angry jot jot.“…I mean, I can bench a lot. So the other day, I was with my buddy and I finally figured it out; I realized that he’s jealous; that’s his problem with me…” Paranoia jot jot. “…and I know I’m his competition. I undercut him all the time. He would love to see me fail and close up shop, but…” Ah ha. Psychotic? jot jot. All of this is very typical with steroid use and abuse. “…so anyway, I can push harder, lift more, ya know? I work at it! The steroids help, but the work is all me.” Bingo! Finally! Now we’re getting somewhere.
So tell me about that…the steroids. Who’s prescribing? “Oh no, I am buying it at the gym.” Well, how much are you using? “I’m doing 200mg every two days.” Injecting testosterone cypionate, 200mg Q 2 days jot jot jot jot jot. Buys at gym jot jot. And how long have you been using them? “Uhh, maybe about three years?” Times 3+ years jot jot jot. Do you think maybe you have a problem? “Oh, no. No.” Denies problem jot jot. I explain that he’s at a max dose for someone who has virtually no gonad function. Confusion jot. I explain that means someone who produces no natural testosterone. I spell it out. You’re taking the max dose that a person with no gonad function, zero testosterone would take, and that’s on top of your normal testosterone levels. Or I should say your natural testosterone levels. So you would be way above normal- ten times normal levels or more. And you’re wondering why you’ve been having these rages? Losing control? Loses control jot jot. Banging on s÷=%t at home jot jot jot. Screaming at wife jot jot. Have you ever hit her? “No. I haven’t hit her. But I’ve wanted to hit something. My fists are clenched and I want to tear something apart with my bare hands.” Denies hitting wife jot jot. Clenched fists jot jot jot. Believes he’s bipolar jot jot. I tell him that he’s not bipolar. Steroids are the problem here. He says, “No, it’s not. Can’t be.” No. It’s the steroids, I’m sure. Rocky says, “Ya know, I’ve been reading, and I’m saying it’s probably bipolar.” He’s just holding on to the bipolar excuse. Addicted jot jot. I mean, he would rather be bipolar- actually fight to be bipolar- than admit that his precious steroids are the sole root of his many issues. Denial jot. Steroids don’t cause a typical high, it’s more of an exhilarating positive feeling, an energized, almost super power feeling. For dudes like Rocky, with his temperment, he is all about that musclebound feeling of power.
Have you noticed your hairline is receding. “Oh. You can tell?” Umm, yeah, I can tell- it’s like three inches back from where it should be- that’s why I mentioned it. That’s what steroids do. “Really?” Really. Bipolar doesn’t do that. Have you noticed your oily skin and acne on your back? “Yeah, I have.” Yeah. Bipolar doesn’t do that either. Guess what does. You get really argumentative and pissy. Some people actually become psychotic. “Oh, I’m not psychotic, man.” Really? But, you know, in our conversation, you said you’re always worried about people at the gym being jealous and giving you side eye and you said people are trying to destroy your business. You know, maybe you’re getting a little paranoid. “Oh, I am not paranoid.” Uh huh, yeah. I tried to explain. When you’re getting paranoid, you don’t know you’re getting paranoid. He saw all these deep meanings and he was making these deep connections, why people would be tracking him and why government agencies would be interested in monitoring his business. Rocky is in the nursing home business. He’s not even actually running a nursing home, he just provides services to nursing homes. It’s not like he’s involved with any government agencies. He’s contracted to bring in ancillary services to nursing homes. It’s a fairly big business and he’s been pretty successful financially, but there was no root in reality for the paranoia he was demonstrating.
I asked him if he noticed anything else, like maybe breast enlargement? “Ahh, maybe a little bit, but no big deal.” Mmm hmm. + breast development jot jot jot. He says, “You know, my muscles got bigger, I got leaner, and my endurance increased. I felt trimmer, more energetic.” You said your endurance went up, how much cardio do you do, Rocky? He says, “Well, I used to do more, but man, I’ve gotten so much bigger that it’s hard to breathe when I do heavy cardio, you know?” No, I don’t know, because I don’t abuse steroids. Androgenic erythrocytosis jot jot jot. That means that you have increased the number of red blood cells in your blood, so your blood becomes thick and viscous like oil. You have so many red blood cells, it’s tough for your heart to beat, it’s tough for your lungs to get oxygen, because there’s drag from the increased viscosity, so when you do cardio, you can’t breathe. “Yeah, yeah. I can barely run. I used to do triathlons. I can’t do them anymore, but I can lift way more weight.” Yeah, because not only are the steroids making your blood thick like oil with RBCs, the thick blood makes the left heart ventricle- the one that does most of the pumping of the blood- thick. It’s a muscle, so the thick viscous blood overworks it as it tries to pump that thick gross blood through, so it makes that left ventricle wall thick, really thick. So instead of having a thin elastic pump that pumps blood in and out easily, you get this thick, wide left ventricle wall that cannot pump effectively. It enlarges the left ventricle wall, so you can’t pump good oxygen rich blood through. It’s called hypertrophy. With all those factors going on, it’ll cause hypertension. “Oh, yeah, I take medicine for that.” Like no, big deal. Aah, I just take medicine for the damage that I’m causing myself. Duh! + hypertension jot jot jot. + medication jot jot. And did you tell the doctor that prescribes that med that you’re using steroids? “No.” Nice. Prescribing Dr. unaware of illicit steroid use jot jot jot jot jot. Do you know that hypertension leads to kidney disease? “Really? My kidneys work good I think.” I’m thinking ‘maybe for now’ to myself. You think you look good on the outside, although you’re balding, your skin is oily, you have pitted acne scars on your face and acne on your back and you’re growing boobs like a teenage girl and your testicles are microscopic and you have low to no sperm and your penis doesn’t work… and you can’t breathe with any amount of exertion because your blood is thick and gross so your heart is all enlarged and your blood pressure is so high you have to take medication like a man more than twice your age. And you’re causing all of it! Through your steroid addiction. And as if the physical side isn’t bad enough, now it’s affecting you mentally. You’re paranoid, on the verge of psychosis…really you’ve got a toe or two over that line if you want the truth. So no matter how big your muscles are, no matter how good you think you look (and my raised eyebrows were clearly saying that was debatable) you are destroying your body. “Um, like what? How?” Now he’s really listening. I continued. Do you understand what hypertension actually is and does? Cause and effect? How about atherosclerotic plaques. What are those? What do they mean? The arteries in your heart become lined with plaques that are basically made of fat. These fat plaques are sticky, so as your thick gross blood slogs through the arteries, the fat plaques gather and narrow the arteries, so you cannot push blood through the arteries. Eventually, they clog off. It’s like a tunnel being filled with more and more muck, so there’s not enough room for blood to flow through and you get a heart attack and die. But before that happens, you’re incapacitated with high blood pressure because your thick oversized left ventricle is trying to push your thick gross blood through arteries that are filled with fatty muck, athersclerotic plaque filled arteries. “I didn’t know all that.” I’m sure you don’t, but I’m not done educating you yet. It gets better. Well, actually worse.
Education jot. Steroids decrease HDL, which is the good cholesterol that helps keep your arteries open. And it also raises the LDL, which is the bad cholesterol that causes the fatty plaque to build up. So lowers the good while raising the bad. Got that? “Yep. Got it.” So that causes hypertension, and makes you prone to heart attacks and strokes. Did you know that hypertension also makes your kidneys malfunction? I didn’t think so. Right now, your kidneys are trying to pump under hypertension, and that kills them. The gross viscous blood thick with red blood cells kills them. So your kidneys shut down. Do you like to be able to take a piss? To be able to clean your thick slaggy blood of all the toxins you make? He nodded that yes, he rather liked to be able to take a piss and clear his thick slaggy blood of all the toxins he makes. I thought so. Enjoy it while it lasts. Before long, a machine will do that for you: four hour sessions, three times a week…if you’re lucky enough to live that long. If the massive heart attack doesn’t kill you first. Honestly, Rocky looked like he was about to have a heart attack right now. I know I’m hitting him pretty hard with all of this at once, but this guy was in a romantic relationship with his precious steroids, and I need him to break it off, clean and quick like. But wait, there’s more!
Now, with all this bad stuff going on, the little vessels throughout your body do not pump blood as well because they are clogged and they are hypertensive. So all those tissues, joints, and bones are starved of nutrients and oxygen. You get something called avascular necrosis. Avascular means without vasculature- blood vessels- and necrosis means death. It’s everywhere, but especially in the hips, with the ball and socket joint. The little vessels that feed the balls of your hip joints, where the femur meets your hip? Hello, the blood supply gets occluded- it gets starved- and then it gets dead. So you can recognize all the steroid abusers out there: they’re the 40 year olds using wheelchairs and walkers, whining about the pain in their hips. Balding, acne, boobs, erectile dysfunction, heart problems, kidney issues, disability, chronic pain. On and on. Oh yeah, it’s pretty bad, but it gets worse. His face fell. I couldn’t let up now. You enjoy being able to lift weights? You enjoy being physically capable? Like a zombie, he mumbled on a sigh “Yes…” I’m glad you do. But don’t get too used to it. Because if you keep this crap up, keep injecting that garbage, you’ll build your muscles up beyond what your body can handle. You’ll build them up- your muscles will get bigger- but your ligaments and tendons can’t be built up, and they can’t support these unnaturally large muscles. Do you know what muscles without ligaments and tendons do? Not much. Without healthy ligaments and tendons, big muscles are useless for anything but causing pain, debilitating pain. When you’re pumping iron, lifting really heavy weights, your ligaments and tendons get damaged. In no time, the muscle size supercedes the ability of the damaged ligaments and tendons, so you get irreversible chronic muscle pain. Sounds great, right Rocky? Oh, wait, and to top it all off, now you’re having psychological effects. You’re having rages. You want to tear something apart with your bare hands. You said that. What’s scary is that right now, at this moment, you have the physical ability to do that. If somebody pushed you too far on a bad day, you might go there. You could kill someone. I’ve seen it happen to a patient. A guy a lot like you. He came in here young and dumb and I explained everything to him, just like I’ve done with you. For several years, I begged him to stop. He refused to listen; didn’t believe me. Ultimate in denial. He’s in prison now for the next 30 years; that equals a life sentence for him. It’s scary. What’s even scarier is that if you keep this crap up, keep sticking yourself with that needle, you won’t be able to tear somebody apart for long. You might want to, but you’ll be too debilitated. That guy in prison? He’s in a wheelchair now 90% of the time. He uses a walker sometimes- when he can stand the pain- which isn’t often.
I’ll make this very plain. You are addicted to steroids. They are physically wrecking your body, the body you seem to worship. Oily skin, acne, bacne, boobs, receding hairline, balding, teeny tiny testicles, a penis that you can’t get up…and no sperm to come out of it anyway. And that’s just the stuff on the outside that people can see! Your insides get wrecked too. Thick slaggy gross blood, hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, kidney dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, avascular necrosis, chronic pain. And now you’re raging, scaring the crap out of your wife, you’re paranoid, becoming psychotic. You have nothing positive happening in your life. So it’s your call, Rocky. I can help get you off the train here before it runs your ass over. He was nodding very slowly, but clearly shell-shocked. Look, how about this. Don’t use for two weeks and see me again. You’ll have some time to digest all of this. Can you do it? If you can’t- if you feel like you’re gonna hit that needle- I’ll see you sooner. Here’s my cell number. Call me anytime, but especially if and when you’re tempted to use. Deal? “Deal.” We shook on it.
Dx: steroid addiction, assoc features jot jot jot jot
Pt agrees to d/c use jot jot jot
F/up 2 weeks, will call/ see sooner prn jot jot jot jot jot
Here’s the bottom line on steroids people. Your body just does not like these drugs in excess. There may be some use for them in people with anemia, in people who have wound healing problems, a temporary use in people with HIV or cancer who do not want to eat, and in muscle wasting diseases for short periods of time and in very regulated doses, okay…fine.
But, for my Olympic athlete patients, my professional athlete patients: you all know who you are. All of my Rocky’s out there: cut it out! You’re sterile, can’t get it up, scared everyone’s gonna see your breasts, hello, they are! I know you’re saying ‘but I cycle them on and off, doc!’ I say bullshit. No, it causes permanent damage to heart, kidneys, tendons, and ligaments. Not to mention the cosmetic aspects: the oily skin, the acne on your face and back, the balding, receding hairline… and you say ‘oh, but to minimize the breasts I use an estradiol’ (an anti-estrogen, because testosterone breaks down to estrogen, so if you use an anti-estrogen in someone who is abusing testosterone or testosterone-like drugs, you will not get the breast enlargement) Yes, that’s true. I’ll give you that. But, you still get all that other crap, guys! Hellllo!! All my elite athletes, you all whine like ‘No, no, no, I need it to stay competitive, because everybody else is doping!’ Whatever! You are addicted to the high, the performance, and the cosmetic enhancement. You get big muscles, tiny balls, and tinier brains. You also get limp and sterile, permanent damage to the ventricles, the heart, and the kidneys, hypertension, and its host of other problems. You are predisposing yourself to coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke. You become delusional, and you fly into rages when the wind blows.
As you are my patients, I’ve probably told you about other patient stories. For those that haven’t heard them: one steroid abuser was very paranoid and psychotic, but of course didn’t know it, because you will not see yourself becoming psychotic. He was stopped at red light. I don’t know what he was doing, but when the light changed green, he didn’t go right away. So the car behind him honked. He started ticking like a time bomb, and the car kept honking, but for whatever reason, he still didn’t go. Instead, with the light still green, he got out of his car. With a golf club. He went off, banging on the guy’s car with the golf club, and he just didn’t stop. Eventually, they called the police. The police came and they had to subdue him with a tazer because he was out of control. When he was transported to the emergency room, he continued there, even continuing to spit and scream, even after being put in four-point restraints. Finally, he had to be pharmacologically restrained with a freaking rhino dart. Unbelievable. I mean, he was all black and blue, like he had been beaten, but he did it by thrashing, all by himself. His whole affect was totally inappropriate. I know that some people are beaten by police for no reason; they don’t deserve it, but this maniac was taking every opportunity to hit the police officers for absolutely no reason. In the hospital, he was arguing with nurses, disturbing the entire emergency department for no reason. His wife finally came in, but even she couldn’t calm him. He just lost it, in every sense. He was (or had been) on the road to being Mr. Olympia or some such title. He was 190 pounds, and bench pressing over 450 pounds. It was just crazy. Eventually, but not long after, he went into kidney failure. But it wasn’t from the steroids. Yeah, right. Denial!! jot jot
You know, it also causes immune suppression, so you don’t fight off pathogens like viruses, like COVID-19, like any bacteria. I had someone who had a heart attack and died. He was 25. Another stroked out in his late 30’s. These patients are Olympians, professional athletes, and really elite level people. They’re so hyper-disciplined about their diets and their training and supplements and sleep patterns and all of that. But they’re abusing steroids. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Some have made it. Big success stories that stopped and then did it the right way. But many don’t. Right now I have a 45-year-old man who is just going into kidney failure. And the one with psychosis that killed the guy that set him off. He’ll die in prison. Now I have Rocky. I hope I opened his eyes.
Remember, people… just because you cannot see what’s going on doesn’t mean the steroids aren’t destroying you. They are. But you can get there without them. And PS, for those that are wondering, there is a steroid withdrawal: headaches, drowsiness, decreased appetite, weight loss, fatigue, depression, dizziness. It’s a mess when I get them off, especially when they do high dose. It takes two to four weeks, and they are miserable, cranky, irritable, and obnoxious people to deal with when they are in withdrawal. I use benzodiazepines, things to help them sleep; I sometimes add anti-psychotics because they can’t see themselves drifting to the psychotic lane, sometimes hearing voices and seeing things. It’s a spectrum. And lots of misreading events in reality… “Those people are talking about me. They’re plotting against me. Those police officers are here to get me, or that group of people talking over there are planning something against me or these workers are not working because they are all in a grand plot against me. They are very faint signs and forms of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things, disorganized speech and behavior is the extreme. But there can be the unextreme, the misreading, the over-emotional abnormal response to normal events, thinking people are plotting.
Probably from age 10 to 30 is when most people started and abused the steroids. And too often, it’s a one way trip, once they start, they get lost in it. You know, “I am superman now” and they don’t stop, and then they stroll into my office and then I deal with them when they are 45 to 50 and that’s when their kidneys shut down, when they get a heart attack, when they are debilitated with degenerative disk disease from lifting too heavy weights, their ligaments and tendons go, they become sterile, they cannot have kids, they’re in constant horrible chronic pain. They have heart problems and kidney problems, and that’s what gets them. If they have heart and kidney failure, to the point where the organs have just given up, that’s what kills them.
Hopefully not Rocky jot jot jotLearn More
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A penile erection is the hydraulic effect of blood entering and being retained in sponge-like bodies within the penis. The process is often initiated as a result of sexual arousal, when signals are transmitted from the brain to nerves in the penis. Erectile dysfunction is indicated when an erection is difficult to produce. There are various circulatory causes, including alteration of the voltage-gated potassium channel, as in arsenic poisoning from drinking water. The most important organic causes are cardiovascular disease and diabetes, neurological problems (for example, trauma from prostatectomy surgery), hormonal insufficiencies (hypogonadism) and drug side effects.
Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings (psychological reasons) rather than physical impossibility; this is somewhat less frequent but often can be helped. Notably in psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment. Erectile dysfunction, tied closely as it is about ideas of physical well being, can have severe psychological consequences.
Besides treating the underlying causes such as potassium deficiency or arsenic contamination of drinking water, the first line treatment of erectile dysfunction consists of a trial of PDE5 inhibitor drugs (the first of which was sildenafil or Viagra). In some cases, treatment can involve prostaglandin tablets in the urethra, injections into the penis, a penile prosthesis, a penis pump or vascular reconstructive surgery.Learn More