By Steven Reinberg
FRIDAY, Feb. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly 1 in 10 retired National Football League players polled in a confidential survey said they had used now-banned anabolic steroids while still playing.
The researchers who conducted the survey also reported that use of anabolic or androgenic steroids raises a player's risk of suffering joint, ligament and cartilage injuries throughout the body.
"As we studied retired NFL football players, we found that those who had been into the heavy use of steroids during their playing career were more likely to sustain musculoskeletal injuries than those who did not use steroids," said lead researcher Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor of exercise and sports medicine and chairman of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The admission by New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez that he used performance-enhancing drugs has thrust steroids and other banned substances back into the media spotlight in recent weeks. Other big-name players, including pitcher Roger Clemens and home-run king Barry Bonds, have also been linked with the use of the contraband drugs.
But what about the effects of steroids on a player's health? The report, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, sought to answer that question.
Guskiewicz's group contacted almost 3,700 members of the National Football League Retired Players Association. In a survey that guaranteed confidentiality, 2,552 former pro football players answered questions on their use of performance-enhancing steroids and the musculoskeletal injuries they suffered during their playing years.
Among the ex-players, 9.1 percent said they had used steroids, with certain categories of players more likely to report using the drugs. For example, 16.3 percent of offensive linemen admitted using steroids, as did 14.8 percent of defensive lineman.
The high-water mark for steroid use occurred in the 1980s, when about one in every five players, 20.3 percent, said they had tried the drugs. Use declined in the 1990s and beyond to 12.7 percent of players, the researchers reported.
In addition to joint ligament and cartilage injuries, players who took steroids also had higher rates of neck, spine, elbow, knee, ankle, foot and toe injuries than did those who did not take steroids. However, the researchers found no steroid-related muscle, shoulder or tendon injuries.
Guskiewicz speculated that the additional musculoskeletal injuries could have resulted from the increased weight of the muscle mass created by steroids, putting extra stress on joints that then wears them down.
Joint injuries can then lead to osteoarthritis, creating a "snowball effect" in terms of declining health, he said. "Once you develop osteoarthritis, you are more prone to be inactive, making it likely to have cardiac problems, diabetes and depression because of the change in lifestyle," Guskiewicz said. "It's sort of like a snowball rolling downhill and out of control."
Steroid use did seem linked to an increase in the risk of osteoarthritis, depression and alcohol abuse, the study found. And overall, retired players who had used steroids became less physically active.
However, these players also seemed to have lower rates of other diseases such as diabetes and cancer. But the researchers noted that the players surveyed have not reached old age, when those types of problems begin to loom large.
Guskiewicz said he believes that the NFL is doing a better job of preventing steroid use today. "But there are other places and sports where it may not be as monitored and controlled as we would like it to be," he said. "So, even though this was a group of retired professional football players, there is a crossover to other sports, and we should all pay attention to it as one of the many negative consequences of steroid use."
Dr. Linn Goldberg, professor of medicine and head of the division of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, said the study does have its flaws.