When orthopedic surgeon Jonathan Cluett advises his older patients that he may inject them with a steroid to treat their medical ailment, it’s not uncommon, he said, to get wisecracks in return about whether it will build muscles or enhance athletic performance.
There isn’t a day that goes by in which hospitals don’t administer steroids for medical use, Cluett said, but their growing abuse by sports world figures can mislead patients and call for explanations about what steroids actually are and how and why they are used medically.
The latest flap came as star Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez disclosed last month that he used steroids to improve his performance.
While medical professionals like Cluett, who is affiliated with the Orthopedic Associates of Northern Berkshire, are concerned about abuse, they also describe steroids as valuable everyday drugs that are commonly used to ease pain and improve the quality of life.
"There are people that depend on [steroids] to live a normal life," Cluett said. "Steroids is not a four-letter word, it’s just a molecule. There are a lot of categories of steroids."
The two most common forms are corticosteroids and anabolic steroids.
Corticosteroid is commonly used to treat inflammation and alleviate the pain of autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis and asthma.
Cluett described inflammation is a cascade of events in the body, which steroids can disrupt.
It’s also not uncommon for asthma sufferers to rushed to an emergency room to be administered a steroid to open the air passages, said Berkshire Medical Center pharmacist Meredith Higley.
Anabolic steroid use in medicine is less common, said Cluett, but there are cases in which a patient will need an injection to spur delayed puberty or help build muscles lost to wasting diseases like AIDS.
In recent years, there’s also been a growing interest in using anabolic steroids to help older men who naturally begin losing their ability to produce testosterone in their 40s and may see a significant drops in their 60s.
"[Testosterone] drives all purposes of functions in the body," explained Higley, adding low testosterone can leave people feeling listless and without energy.
She went on to say that athletes who abuse steroids may be using 10 to 100 times what might be prescribed medically for a patient.
Short-term side effects may include sexual and reproductive disorders and severe acne. Long-term effects -- which have not been studied -- include heart damage and stroke, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration.
Cluett said as with any drug, there’s a black market in which those seeking drugs can find them.
"I am not aware of any particular concern locally," he said, but he cautioned, "we’d be ignoring the obvious to believe that it’s not happening locally."
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