Crossing the Line: Athletes Risk Their Health When Using Performance-Enhancing Drugs

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A man with big muscles holding performance-enhancing drug in his hand.

Athletes want to win—sometimes taking extreme measures to push through the pain and perform at their best. But when has an athlete gone too far?

When it gives the athlete an unfair advantage—and threatens his or her health.

Painless Play

Abusing drugs to overcome pain or inflate athletic abilities is definitely an unfair advantage. This doesn’t include the appropriate use of doctor-prescribed treatments, such as cortisone injections or prescription opioid pain medications. However, using prescription pain medication in a way other than prescribed is not only unfair, it’s dangerous.

Besides causing confusion, nausea, and breathing problems, abuse of opioids can lead to addiction and overdose. Even abusing cortisone—which doesn’t have the same medical risks as abusing opioids—can damage your joints.

Endless Endurance

Endurance is the ability to play or compete for a long time without needing a break. Athletes most often increase their endurance by exercising and training. However, some athletes turn to dishonest ways of increasing endurance such as blood doping, which boosts the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream.

Because red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, a higher concentration in the blood can improve an athlete’s endurance. Many methods of blood doping are illegal, particularly in professional sports.

Famous athletes like Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez have been linked to erythropoietin (EPO)—one method for blood doping. EPO is among the top two PEDs abused by athletes (the first being human growth hormone), even though it increases the risk for several deadly diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and a blood clot in the brain or lungs.

Although blood doping can be difficult to detect, scientists are working on better methods of detection.

Pumped-Up Performance

Some athletes abuse performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)—like anabolic steroids and stimulants (including caffeine and ephedrine, and even methamphetamine)—to help them perform better.

Steroids build muscles and improve athletic performance. Stimulants increase focus, endurance, and speed. Each comes with its own set of risks. But in general, these PEDs increase the risk for high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, irregular heart rate, heart attack, stroke, dangerously high body temperatures, and intense anger or paranoia. Far from a winning combination!

Tell us in comments: Do you think it’s cheating to use PEDs?

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