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Steroids in Sports: Questions Answered

Get Answers to 16 Questions About Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Baseball and Other Sports
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 13, 2007 -- The Mitchell Report, released today, details the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs including steroids and growth hormone in Major League Baseball.

The long-awaited report by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell names names, but it doesn't show what the long-term effects of such drug use may be.

For answers to that and other questions about the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports, WebMD talked to John Morley, MD, professor of medicine and the acting director of the endocrinology division at St. Louis University and the St. Louis VA Medical Center.

(Will the Mitchell Report affect how you feel about your baseball heroes? Discuss it on the Health Cafe message board.)

What are performance-enhancing drugs?

Performance-enhancing drugs come in many forms. Most people think of them as the anabolic hormones, which divide into the steroids (the testosterone-like products) and the growth-hormone-like products. In addition to that, we would include amphetamines as a performance-enhancing drugs, though I believe the Mitchell Report excluded amphetamines.

(Medical Editor's note: Anabolic steroids are different from corticosteroids, which are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and other diseases.)

What do these drugs do for athletes?

It depends on which drug. Anabolic steroids build bulk very much; they put on extra muscles, so they make you bigger. So that's one piece.

But the other part of them, which is perhaps more important for a person who's perhaps a home-run hitter, is they improve visual-spatial function. Visual-spatial function means that the way you hit home runs is that you can wait long enough that you can commit a millionth of a second longer into your swing. If you do that, basically, you don't strike out all the time to change-ups.

Most home-run hitters are not necessarily bulky. It's nice if you are, but you don't have to be. You've got to basically have a great ability to wait that millionth of a second longer, and that's what anabolic steroids do for the hitters, as opposed to the pitchers or if you're looking at football players or athletes where you're trying to get an increase in strength, per se.

And what do they do for pitchers?

If you're using an anabolic steroid, you build strength. But many of the pitchers take with it growth hormone. The reason they use the growth hormone is growth hormone builds your muscle bulk out of proportion to your strength.

Now, if I'm going to be a pitcher and I'm going to throw, what I would like to be able to do is make the batter think that fundamentally, my ball is going to come slightly faster. In other words, the batter looks at your size, looks at the speed that you seem to be moving your arm, and makes a calculation about how fast the ball will get there. This is all done sort of without thinking about it but that's what they do. And if I take growth hormone, my arm looks bigger, so the batter thinks the ball's going to get there faster and so therefore he commits a little earlier, so you're more likely to strike out.

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