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Nov. 29, 1999 (Indianapolis) -- The use of anabolic steroids in athletes has generated much controversy over the years. As a result, the potential medical uses of these steroids have been largely ignored. An article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine reports on research in rabbits that shows this class of steroids may help stop muscle loss, also called atrophy, while a limb is in a cast or otherwise immobilized.

Anabolic steroids, which work by increasing tissue mass, are banned in most sports. Athletes who test positive for anabolic steroids may be suspended from competition.

"When we started the experiment, it seemed like there were a lot of people using a product that physicians were saying would not do any good in terms of building muscle strength," lead author Lt. Col. Dean C. Taylor, MD, tells WebMD. "Our hypothesis was that giving anabolic steroids should limit the amount of atrophy that might occur in immobilized limbs." Taylor is chief of orthopedic surgery at Keller Army Community Hospital in West Point, N.Y.

The researchers put one of the back limbs of 48 rabbits in a cast, without breaking the bone, and divided them into two groups. One group received weekly injections of an anabolic steroid known as nandrolone; the other group received a placebo injection of sesame seed oil. Sesame seed oil does not prevent muscle loss or increase muscle mass. Various measurements of muscle mass and strength were taken at 2, 4, and 8 weeks after casting. Compared with the rabbits that received injections of sesame seed oil, those treated with the steroid had muscles that were bigger and stronger in both the casted and noncasted legs.

"Usually if you don't use a muscle it begins to shrink," says Bruce R. Deschere, MD. "Anabolic steroids do the opposite and are supposed to make muscles enlarge. Before this it was thought that steroids only worked if you ate properly and exercised. Now there is reason to believe that, at least in rabbits, steroids may increase muscle mass without exercise." Deschere is a family medicine expert at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.

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