Anabolic Steroids Can Reverse Muscle Loss in Immobilized Limbs

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.

Though the research findings seem to indicate that anabolic steroids may help people who are bed-ridden or who suffer from disease associated with muscle loss such as AIDS, Deschere cautions against their use if similar results are found in humans. First of all, he notes that using anabolic steroids will not allow people to sit on the couch and begin to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also points out that using these steroids can have some very dangerous side effects, ranging from higher cholesterol to sterility to shrinking of the testicles to some forms of liver cancer.

Greg A. Rowden, MD, agrees and thinks the main use of this technique, if it is found to work on humans, would be in other areas of medicine. Rowden is director of primary care/sports medicine fellowship at the Methodist Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis.

"In sports medicine we are casting fewer and fewer injuries," he tells WebMD. "[Steroids] could be useful in major trauma where many broken limbs require multiple casts for a long period of time. Maintaining muscle mass in this manner might be considered in certain wasting diseases such as AIDS. However, the health costs to the individual associated with possibly returning to work a little quicker, argue against using this in those with less complicated injuries."

"We are not advocating the use of anabolic steroids for therapy at this time," says study co-author Taylor. "Our results suggest that it is time for a closer examination of the possibilities for steroids to be used in a controlled manner for specific purposes. We do not want to portray the message that this will allow people to get bigger and stronger. That is not what the results show."

Vital Information:

  • An experimental study on rabbits shows that anabolic steroids can prevent muscle loss, or atrophy, in limbs that are immobilized by a cast.
  • Previously it was believed that anabolic steroids would not work with out exercise, but this study shows otherwise.
  • If anabolic steroids prove to be effective at preventing muscle atrophy in humans, it is important to note that there are some serious potential side effects, such as higher cholesterol, sterility, shrinking of the testicles, and liver cancer.