Is 'roid rage real?

October 30, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Following the 2007 murder-suicide involving pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his family, many asked if this was a case of 'roid rage. However, nobody seems to question whether 'roid rage actually exists. What's the straight dope?

Cecil replies:

You know, there was a time, back when Cadillacs had fins and people sang along to Burma-Shave commercials, that 'roid rage meant heading to the bathroom with a tube of Preparation H. Times have changed, haven't they? O brave new world / That has such people in it.

Steroids, in the common sense of the term, are synthetic hormones. Administered in high doses, they produce an exaggerated version of the physiological changes caused by natural hormones. The type we're talking about here are anabolic androgenic steroids — synthetic testosterone. The most obvious physical effect of these artificial male sex hormones is Incredible-Hulk-sized muscles. One commonly cited psychological effect is increased aggressiveness, also known as 'roid rage.

Does 'roid rage really happen? Yes, but not to everybody — research to date indicates most steroid users experience little or no psychological effect. But some do report mood swings and increased aggressiveness, and a few flip out. For example:

  • In one study, researchers injected steroids into 50 men for six weeks. Forty-two didn't notice much change in their mental state. Six became moderately more irritable, two others markedly so. And one participant had to drop out of testing because he became "alarmingly hypomanic and aggressive."
  • Another study found that the mood-altering effects of steroids can occur in a very short time — looking at 20 men after just two weeks of testosterone use, there were significant increases in both positive and negative feelings: euphoria and energy, as well as irritability, mood swings, and violent impulses. One subject, who had no personal or family history of mental illness, experienced a protracted manic episode serious enough that he asked to be placed in seclusion.
  • In yet another study, one test subject injected with high doses of testosterone became almost certifiably manic, needing medication to control himself.

Women aren't immune to such effects. A study of 75 female athletes found a third used steroids. Of that third, more than half suffered from irritability, and 40 percent reported an increase in aggressive behavior.

Having a bad attitude is one thing; going berserk is another, and researchers caution that only a small percentage of users become violent. But reports of psycho episodes aren't all just media hype. Some investigators who'd interviewed steroid users reported the following in 1994: "One user, using his fists and a metal bar, seriously damaged three cars, all with their drivers cowering inside, because he had become annoyed by a traffic delay. Another was arrested for causing $1,000 of property damage during a fit of anger at a sports event; another was arrested for assaulting a motorist; another rammed his head through a wooden door; another became involved in a nearly successful murder plot; and another beat and almost killed his dog."

Plenty of research links steroids to violence and crime. A Swedish study of male prison inmates found those testing positive for steroids were more than twice as likely as nonusers to have committed weapons offenses. (Oddly, they were also 50 percent more likely to have committed fraud.) A study of 12- to 17-year-olds found that those who had used steroids at least once committed criminal property damage at twice the rate of nonusers (although not necessarily while under the influence of the drug). A survey of American high school students found a significant link between violence and self-reported steroid use, even after correcting for various factors including other drug use, age, and prior violent behavior.

Steroids produce all sorts of other bizarre effects. I came across a report of an 18-month-old girl accidentally exposed to topical steroid meds who developed pubic hair. Men who take steroids hoping to increase their manliness often experience shrinking testicles, not to mention acne and high cholesterol. One study of 41 male users found 37 percent had developed enlarged breasts (a condition called gynecomastia) due to conversion of some of the steroids to estrogen. Testicular atrophy generally reverses once steroid use is discontinued, but gynecomastia doesn't — five of the men had subsequently undergone breast reduction surgery. Is all this sure to happen if you inject steroids? Of course not. (And since you brought it up, Chris Benoit's apparent rampage can’t be blamed on ’roids with any certainty — an autopsy found he’d suffered severe brain damage due to blows to the head.) But considering the caricature of masculinity you become when the stuff works as advertised, the question isn't whether steroids will turn you into a freak, but what kind.

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References

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Cajigal, Stephanie “Brain Damage May Have Contributed to Former Wrestler’s Violent Demise” Neurology Today 7.18 (2007): 15-16.

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Kunz, Gregory J. et al. “Virilization of Young Children After Topical Androgen Use by Their Parents” Pediatrics 114 (2004): 282-284.

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Pope, Harrison G. “Effects of Supraphysiologic Doses of Testosterone on Mood and Aggression in Normal Men” Archives of General Psychiatry 57 (2000): 133-140.

Pope, Harrison G. and Katz, David L. “Psychiatric and Medical Effects of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Use – A Controlled study of 160 Athletes” Archives of General Psychiatry 51 (1994): 375-382.

Trenton, Adam J. and Currier, Glenn W. “Behavioural Manifestations of Anabolic Steroid Use” CNS Drugs 19 (2005): 571-595.

Tricker, R. et al. “The Effects of Supraphysiological Doses of Testosterone on Angry Behavior in Healthy Eugonadal Men- A Clinical Research Center Study” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 81 (1996): 3754-3758.

Tung-Ping Su et al. “Neuropsychiatric Effects of Anabolic Steroids in Male Normal Volunteers” Journal of the American Medical Association 269 (1993): 2760-2764.

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