MLB players' use of performance enhancing drugs comes with serious health risks

Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have once again taken a toll on the professional sports world with yesterday’s suspensions of 13 Major League Baseball players, including Alex Rodriguez – the highest paid player in professional baseball. Yet, while PEDs may offer players some athletic advantage, their impact on long-term health can be severe.

PEDs are popular among professional athletes for a reason: They’re effective in the short term. Athletes who take hormones or steroids experience a strengthening of the muscles, bones and tendons throughout their bodies, allowing them to train harder, longer and with fewer injuries, according to Dr. Robert Truax, who practices family and sports medicine at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

Using pills, injections or creams, athletes often ingest these drugs in “cycles,” allowing them to train aggressively for periods of time. Then in advance of PED testing periods, athletes go off the drugs, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to leave the system.

“You can cycle it so you have moments of medicine in you, do aggressive training and the medicine helps enhance that training,” Truax told “Then they get off of it, and hopefully their training without the medicine is a little bit better.”

Serious health consequences

Despite their short term training benefits, PEDs have serious and potentially debilitating long-term side effects, according to Truax.

“These hormones or other drugs – metabolites or steroids – are actually chemically similar to hormones in our body already,” Truax said. “However, since they are taken in higher than normal physiological doses, they increase the amount of hormones you have well above normal ranges in our body.”

Some of the better known but less serious side effects include impotence in men, the worsening of acne, balding and steroid rage. When taken by adolescents, PEDs can also stunt growth.

But there are also far worse consequences of PED use – including heart damage, liver damage and an increased risk for blood clots.

“The heart is a muscle…and the heart isn’t designed to have that much testosterone stimulating it,” Truax said. “So it will grow abnormally. Then, the testosterone gets broken down by the liver so too much of it can accumulate in the liver and damage it.”

Unfortunately, the allure of the immediate benefits of PEDs outweigh the threat of long-term health consequences for some professional athletes.

How effective are PEDs?

Did the use of PEDs really make Alex Rodriguez that much better than he already was? It’s a difficult question to answer.

“Even when you’re an excellent player, individuals think when they’re up to bat on the fourth time, they’re tired and up against a relief pitcher who is fresh,” Truax said. “They think if PEDs can make the fourth hit as strong as the first, then in that sense it could be very helpful.”

Players who take PEDs are often able to hit more home runs or throw the ball more consistently, because the drugs help them work their fast-twitch muscle fibers better than they would normally be able to without drugs. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are what athletes use during brief, powerful movements – like hitting a baseball out of the park.

“Now they can do more of those – more reps, more frequently – therefore muscles get stronger and faster. So now when they’re up to bat that fast-twitch muscle is a little stronger, they can swing the bat faster,” Truax said.

However, considering the potentially severe long-term health consequences of these drugs – and the already exceptional athletic skills of player’s like Alex Rodriguez – it seems as if PEDs may ultimately be hurting players more than they are helping them.

“Those in the major leagues obviously have fantastic skill that 100 (other players) don’t have,” Truax said. “So do they really need it?”