Reached a plateau at the gym? Can’t bench press five more pounds? Government statistics estimate that more than 1 million Americans use anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass. Are steroid users really at risk from developing dangerous side effects of steroids?

Thanks to the media, most people are familiar with the effects of taking anabolic steroids, such as:

  • Acne
  • Shrunken testicles
  • Aggressive and violent behavior
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Gynecomastia (feminine breast tissue development)
While it’s true that steroids can cause irreparable harm to the body, modern steroid users in general are better educated than "muscle heads" of the past when it comes to avoiding side effects. And for those who only take steroids short-term, research indicates that they are not sentenced to a life filled with medical problems. Here are a few examples of what studies say about some steroid side effects:
  1. Hormone changes. The body’s natural testosterone levels plummet when someone uses anabolic steroids. This is why the testes stop producing testosterone and can eventually shrink. But a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says that “the alterations in cell counts, HDL cholesterol, liver function and most hormones of the pituitary-testicular axis induced by a long-term abuse of AAS [anabolic androgenic steroids] were reversible after stopping medication for over one year.”
  2. Chronic liver problems. A study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise concluded that rats given anabolic steroids over an eight-week period eventually had normal liver function restored. Most people would contend, though, that zealous human steroid users would take steroids for more than one cycle. But another government-sponsored study, concluded that after a three-month withdrawal from anabolic steroids, human liver function returned to normal. 
  3. Bad skin. Applying a topical anti-androgenic cream can alleviate steroid-induced acne, suggests a study by the University of Toronto’s Division of Dermatology. That and also knowing which types of anabolic steroids to take can help some users avoid acne.
  4. 'Roid Rage. Increased hostility and aggressiveness is often associated with illicit steroid usage. But could it be that only people who are aggressive to begin with are the only ones prone to display 'roid rage? In one study of 109 men, aged 20-50, who were administered testosterone injections, only five people exhibited manic characteristics.
  5. Female-like breasts. Now that most modern anabolic steroid users have access to online forums and a pharmacist-worthy compendium of knowledge, it’s possible to avoid developing excess estrogen in the body by taking anti-estrogen compounds.
There are several other potentially serious side effects of anabolic steroid use including impaired immune function, kidney damage, sterility, high blood pressure and more.

It’s important to know, however, that not all illegal steroid users are destined to a lifetime of chronic health problems, especially if users quit.

Anabolic steroids remain illegal. Human biochemistry is an extremely delicate and complex science and altering your hormones, even if the side effects can be reversed, could potentially affect other systems of the body.

For these reasons, anabolic steroids should be avoided completely.

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.