R E V I E W Open Access
Treatments for people who use anabolic
androgenic steroids: a scoping review
, Marie-Claire Van Hout
, Joseph Tay Wee Teck
and Jim McVeigh
Background: A growing body of evidence suggests that anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) are used globally by a
diverse population with varying motivations. Evidence has increased greatly in recent years to support
understanding of this form of substance use and the associated health harms, but there remains little evidence
regarding interventions to support cessation and treat the consequences of use. In this scoping review, we identify
and describe what is known about interventions that aim to support and achieve cessation of AAS, and treat and
prevent associated health problems.
Methods: A comprehensive search strategy was developed in four bibliographic databases, supported by an iterative
citation searching process to identify eligible studies. Studies of any psychological or medical treatment interventions
delivered in response to non-prescribed use of AAS or an associated harm in any setting were eligible.
Results: In total, 109 eligible studies were identified, which included case reports representing a diverse range of
disciplines and sources. Studies predominantly focussed on treatments for harms associated with AAS use, with scant
evidence on interventions to support cessation of AAS use or responding to dependence. The types of conditions
requiring treatment included psychiatric, neuroendocrine, hepatic, kidney, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and
infectious. There was limited evidence of engagement with users or delivery of psychosocial interventions as part of
treatment for any condition, and of harm reduction interventions initiated alongside, or following, treatment. Findings
were limited throughout by the case report study designs and limited information was provided.
Conclusion: This scoping review indicates that while a range of case reports describe treatments provided to AAS
users, there is scarce evidence on treating dependence, managing withdrawal, or initiating behaviour change in users
in any settings. Evidence is urgently required to support the development of effective services for users and of
evidence-based guidance and interventions to respond to users in a range of healthcare settings. More consistent
reporting in articles of whether engagement or assessment relating to AAS was initiated, and publication within
broader health- or drug-related journals, will support development of the evidence base.
Keywords: Anabolic androgenic steroids, Drug treatment, Health care, Dependence, Behaviour change
Human enhancement drug use differs from other forms of
drug use by virtue of the motivation or purpose of their
use. Typically, they are not consumed either for a treatment
of an illness or injury nor for instant gratification through
their psychoactive properties. Instead, their function is an
attempt to change an individual’s appearance or improve a
skill, ability or activity [1,2]. Characterised by man’sen-
deavour to gain an advantage over his competitor, their
usage is by no means a new phenomenon, featured in
social, ritual and sporting contexts throughout recorded
history. Attempts to classify enhancement drugs have re-
sulted in the six broad categories of drugs to increase lean
muscle mass, to suppress appetite or reduce weight, to
change the appearance of the hair or skin, to increase sex-
ual desire or enhance performance, to improve cognitive
function and to enhance mood or social interaction. Over
the past 30 years, there has been growing media, policy and
academic interest in this form of drug use, in particular the
classification of drugs used to enhance musculature size
and strength. Most notable within this category are the
© The Author(s). 2019 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to
the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver
(http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
* Correspondence: email@example.com
Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, England
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75
anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) and their associated
drugs [3–6]. Also included in this classification are a range
of other hormones [7–11] including human growth hor-
mone [12,13] and insulin [7,14].
While AAS doping remains a concern for sport, both
at elite and recreational levels [15–17], the wider soci-
etal impact is now apparent [4,18,19]. Although preva-
lence estimates of clandestine behaviours such as AAS
are notoriously difficult, a growing body of evidence
has indicated that while well established in North
America, northern Europe and Australia, there are con-
cerns across the globe [6,19].
In recent years, research has provided a more nuanced
understanding of AAS use in relation to the diverse
characteristics and motivations of users [20–27], to-
gether with knowledge of the variety and patterns of
drug use from both academic studies [28–34] and other
sources . Extensive research and comprehensive re-
views have provided details of the identified adverse
health conditions experienced by users of these durgs
, while new research has identified new and concern-
ing health risks [37,38] and the potential for transmis-
sion of blood-borne viruses [20,29,39–43].
A body of research has discussed the risk of develop-
ing AAS dependence and it is estimated that up to 30%
of AAS users may develop dependence, characterised by
the simultaneous use of multiple AAS in large doses
over long periods of time [36,44]. While AAS are not
explicitly recognised in the Diagnostic and statistical
manual of mental disorders (DSM 5) as one of nine clas-
ses of drugs , they may be considered under the
tenth ‘other (or unknown) substance’class. The DSM 5
determines the severity of a substance use disorder from
mild to severe according to the presence of up to 11 cri-
teria. It is argued that while there are differences be-
tween AAS and psychoactive drugs dependence, such as
that AAS are typically used over a period of weeks and
months to increase muscularity rather than to achieve a
‘high’in the short-term, these criteria are still highly
applicable to AAS dependence . Criteria such as
tolerance, withdrawal, use of the substance in larger
amounts, unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop using
the substance, and time spent on activity related to the
substance use have all been identified as features of AAS
dependence [44,46]. A number of hypotheses to explain
AAS dependence have been put forward [47,48] and
recommendations for treating what has been described
as steroid ‘abuse’or dependence have long been pro-
Recent recommendations to treat steroid dependence
include a staged discontinuation, managing withdrawal
symptoms, maintaining abstinence and attenuating com-
plications of chronic use [51–53]. Long-term use of AAS
at high doses may lead to the development of a range of
withdrawal symptoms following cessation, including de-
pression, insomnia, suicidal ideation and fatigue, which
may persist for many months [47,51,54]. Withdrawal is
characterised by psychiatric and neuroendocrine symp-
toms, with the user ultimately re-initiating AAS to allevi-
ate or avoid their onset. Supporting discontinuation may
require a multidisciplinary approach with input from
health professionals such as a GP, addiction specialist,
psychiatrist and endocrinologist . Swedish guidelines
for diagnosing and treating AAS ‘abuse’ include ad-
vice around psychosocial treatments, such as cognitive
behavioural therapy, counselling group therapy and mo-
tivational interviewing. These therapies address the
user’s preoccupation with enhancing their muscularity,
their experiences of past bullying or violence, and result-
ing self-esteem and confidence issues. Brower (2009) be-
lieves that these entrenched psychological issues should
be addressed once acute withdrawal is resolved as part
of successful treatment . Muscle dysmorphia and
associated drive for muscularity [56–58] may be risk fac-
tors for both initiating and continuing AAS use, and po-
tentially dependence . It may be necessary to identify
and address such disorders through counselling or psy-
chotherapies as part of AAS treatment to reduce likeli-
hood of re-initiation .
There has been a fourfold increase in the number of
English language academic papers published between
1995 and 2015 . However, there remains scant evi-
dence in relation to effective policy and practice within
the topic. While we have a greater understanding of the
environmental influences and risk factors for use [17,
60–62], there are few robust findings to support the
effective prevention of AAS use. Little progress has
been made in answering the fundamental questions of
how do we make AAS less attractive and how do we
make these drugs less accessible to those at risk of initi-
ating use [63–66].
Tensions between some AAS users and the medical
community are well documented [26,67–69]andlong
established , predating anti-doping or legislative
control in most countries. Although psychological harm
dependence are also well recognised [71–75]anddiag-
nostic tools available [52,76], available services are few
and far between. Harm reduction programmes, in the
form of needle and syringe programmes (NSP), have
clearly been successful in engaging AAS users in
Australia [42,43,77,78] and, in particular, the United
Kingdom [5,30,79,80]. However, even where uptake
of service is high, substantial numbers of AAS users do
not access these services [26,68,80,81]. Policy guid-
ance regarding the delivery of harm reduction services
for AAS users, centred around NSP provision, is in
place in the United Kingdom [82,83], with its
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 2 of 15
importance recognised in National Drug Strategy and
Treatment guidelines [84,85]. While these guidelines
are based on well-established principles of treatment
engagement and harm reduction, there is an urgent
specific interventions and where the evidence gaps
The overall aim of this review was to identify and describe
what is known about psychosocial and medical interven-
tions that aim to support and achieve cessation of AAS,
and treat and prevent associated health consequences.
Specifically, the review aimed to identify:
1. What studies have examined the implementation
and impact of interventions to support ASS
cessation, and manage the health consequences
related to cessation?
2. What studies have examined the implementation
and impact of interventions to treat the harms or
side effects associated with AAS use?
3. What are the implications of these findings, and
what are the gaps in the evidence base that research
in this area needs to address?
The review was undertaken following Arksey and
O’Malley’s guidance for scoping reviews, which informed
the development of review methods and write-up of
methods and findings .
Inclusion and exclusion criteria
Studies were eligible that included males or females with
current or discontinued use of AAS alone, or AAS use
alongside other substances. Use for any reason (for ex-
ample, strength or sporting enhancement, aesthetic rea-
sons) was acceptable with the exception of where AAS
were prescribed or taken as part of a treatment regimen
or in a controlled medical setting. Studies of any psycho-
social or medical treatment interventions were eligible,
including those that aimed to support individuals to dis-
continue AAS use or to treat the health consequences of
current or past use. This included, but was not restricted
to, treating AAS withdrawal, physical or psychological de-
pendence, injuries, acute conditions, chronic conditions,
side effects and blood-borne viruses. Studies that did not
provide a description of the treatment given or those that
did not describe any outcome following treatment at any
follow-up time were excluded. Interventions that took
place in any setting were eligible, including, but not re-
stricted to, primary and secondary care, community set-
tings such as drugs misuse services, NSPs and AAS
clinics, sport and fitness environments, and prisons.
All types of study designs were considered due to the
anticipated lack of high-quality controlled trials. Arti-
cles published in English were eligible with no date
Initially, a comprehensive search was carried out in four
bibliographic databases (Medline, PsycINFO, Sports Discus
and the Social Sciences Citation Index) in January 2018. A
search strategy was developed initially in Medline and
adapted for the other databases. The full Medline search is
provided in Additional file 2.
The reference lists of all identified papers were screened
to identify potentially eligible studies. Forward citation
searches for included articles were executed in PubMed
and the identified studies were assessed against the review
inclusion criteria. This iterative process continued for all
articles identified through these steps. Due to the nature
of the evidence base, with studies likely to cover a broad
range of topics and to be published in a wide variety of
sources, these additional searches were expected to be im-
portant to identify relevant literature. Initially, titles and
abstracts for all articles identified were reviewed against
the inclusion criteria by one reviewer. A sample of 10%
was independently reviewed by a second reviewer. The full
texts for all articles included at this stage were retrieved
and subjected to further screening against inclusion
Data extraction and synthesis
The relevant characteristics of identified studies were ex-
tracted into structured tables. This included population
characteristics and details of their AAS use, the symp-
toms requiring treatment or reasons for seeking help,
diagnosis, details of the treatment given and the out-
comes of this treatment. Studies were grouped by the
types of harms identified in Pope and colleagues’review
of the harms associated with AAS use . A formal as-
sessment of study quality was not undertaken, as this
step is not recommended for scoping reviews . How-
ever, comments on the overall nature, strengths and lim-
itations of the evidence base are provided alongside
discussion of review findings.
Identification of studies
Database searching identified 3,684 articles. Following
screening of article title and abstracts against review in-
clusion criteria, full-text articles were accessed for 76
articles and these were again reviewed against the inclu-
sion criteria. An additional 64 studies were identified
through checking the reference lists and citations of the
included articles. These were screened in the same
manner. Following full-text screening, 46 articles were
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 3 of 15
excluded, predominantly because no treatments were
reported. The reasons for exclusion at this stage are
reported in Fig. 1.
Summary of findings
In total, 109 studies met the review inclusion criteria.
Summaries of the included studies are provided in
Table 1, grouped by the type of condition that required
treatment. The studies were carried out in 28 countries,
most prominently the USA (n=33)andtheUK(n=
21). One study followed a retrospective chart review de-
sign with the others case report (n= 94) or case series
(n= 14) designs. With the lack of any controlled stud-
ies, it was difficult to draw conclusions relating to the
effectiveness of any treatments provided. Additionally,
there were substantial variations across studies in the
depth of reporting about participants, settings, condi-
tion requiring treatment, the treatments provided and
outcomes. The identified studies were published in
sources representing a diverse range of disciplines.
Across the included studies, all participants were male.
They included a wide range of ages, with the majority in
their 20s and 30s, and represented a broad range of ex-
perience using AAS from recent initiators to long-term
use. Participants’motivations and history were not re-
ported in a consistent manner to understand factors
driving AAS use, but they were frequently described as
participating in bodybuilding or weight-lifting activities.
The types of conditions requiring treatment included
psychiatric (n= 12), neuroendocrine (n= 11), hepatic (n
= 25), kidney (n= 6), cardiovascular (n= 26), musculo-
skeletal (n= 13) and infectious (n= 7). A further eight
studies were categorised as ‘other’disorders. In a small
number of studies, participants were diagnosed with
multiple conditions, but they have been grouped by the
Further details on participants’AAS use, conditions re-
quiring treatment, the treatments provided and outcomes
are provided in Additional file 1.
Treatment to support AAS cessation
Four studies reported abstinence-focussed interventions
following a diagnosis of AAS dependence. In two cases,
patients participated briefly in a drug treatment
tient received medication and psychosocial interven-
tions to manage AAS and opioid withdrawal and
withdrawal symptoms abated over time. Detail on the
nature of these treatments was not provided. In the
remaining study, the patient received medication for a
short period before deciding to resume their AAS use
due to withdrawal symptoms . There was no evi-
dence identified here, however, regarding psychosocial
interventions that have sought to address any associ-
ated psychological disorders amongst users seeking
treatment for their AAS use or any other condition.
Additionally, no evidence was identified on approaches
to reduce risk of relapse by developing social support
systems, improving self-confidence or managing stress,
Fig. 1 Flow of studies through the review
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 4 of 15
Table 1 Summary of included studies
Diagnosis Treatment approach
Psychiatric (n= 12)
 USA CS Depression Medical therapy
 USA CR Substance dependence Drug treatment programme participation
 Canada CR Depressed mood with anxiety, paranoia, derealisation Medical therapy, electroconvulsive treatment
 Greece CR Mood disorder with manic features Medical therapy
 Germany CR Mania Medical therapy
 USA CR Borderline personality disorder with antisocial traits Medical therapy, education about AAS, psychotherapy
 India CR Substance dependence including opioids and AAS Medical therapy for AAS and opioid withdrawal,
psycho-education and relapse prevention
 Ireland CR Mixed psychotic disorder Medical therapy
 USA CR Acute mania Medical therapy
 UK CR Psychosis with low mood Medical therapy
 USA CR AAS dependence Drug treatment programme participation
 USA CR AAS dependence Medical therapy
Neuroendocrine (n= 11)
 Netherlands CR Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism Medical therapy
 USA CR Hypogonadism Medical therapy
 Malaysia CR Complete azoospermia Medical therapy
 UK CR Severe hypogonadotropic hypogonadism Medical therapy
 UK CS Azoospermia Advice to discontinue AAS
 USA CR Impotence—reduced testicular volume on both sides and
gynaecomastia on both sides
 USA CR Azoospermia Discontinuation of all medications; medical therapy
 USA RCR Azoospermia AAS cessation and medical therapy
 Italy CR Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism Medical therapy following AAS discontinuation
 USA CS Hypogonadism Medical therapy
 USA CR Azoospermia Medical therapy
Hepatic (n= 25)
 USA CR Tumour haemorrhage in liver. On second presentation:
tender hepatomegaly and haemorrhage, tachycardia
Surgery; instruction to discontinue AAS
 Mexico CR Liver toxicity, cholestasis Medical therapy; AAS discontinued
 USA CS Hepatotoxicity Medical therapy
 USA CR Liver toxicity Medical therapy
 USA CS Hepatotoxicity. In one case, patient suffered from renal
 Spain CS 1) Hyperechogenic lesions in the liver; 2) Acute renal
failure, muscular damage, metabolic alkalosis and
1) Instruction to discontinue AAS; inclusion in liver
transplantation program; 2) Patient received
haemodialysis; instruction to discontinue AAS.
 UK CR Hepatic rupture with cardiovascular collapse, sepsis
and acute renal failure
 Germany CR Hepatocellular carcinoma. Liver was enormously
Chemoembolization was declined by patient who was
recommended for transplantation
 Australia CR Hepatocellular carcinoma Surgery
 Lebanon CR Liver injury resulting in prolonged cholestasis and acute
Advice to discontinue AAS, medical therapy, plasma
exchange. Patient refused renal biopsy.
 China CR Dilated cardiomyopathy and acute hepatic injury Medical therapy
 Poland CR Severe intrahepatic cholestasis that developed to severe Medical therapy
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 5 of 15
Table 1 Summary of included studies (Continued)
Diagnosis Treatment approach
 UK CS Cholestasis Medical therapy
 Spain CR Severe cholestatic jaundice Unclear
 USA CS Severe hepatotoxicity, cholestasis Medical therapy
 Netherlands CR Mild jaundice; cholestatic hepatitis identified through
 UK CR Three grade II oesophageal varices Blood transfusion and sclerotherapy
 Australia CR Intrahepatic cholestasis Medical therapy
 USA CR Severe cholestasis and renal failure. Re-admitted
 Spain CR Hepatic rupture, liver failure. Hematoma of the liver Surgery
 USA CR Acute, nonobstructive, intrahepatic cholestatic hepatitis Medical therapy; advice to avoid other medications
 USA CR Severe jaundice, bile acid nephropathy Medical therapy, blood transfusion, AAS discontinued
 Spain CS Severe cholestasis, hepatotoxicity Medical therapy followed by MARS therapy
 Brazil CR Giant hepatic adenoma Surgery
 Germany CR Hepatocellular carcinoma Surgery
 USA CR Initial diagnosis of hepatic adenomatosis (2004). On third
admission, diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and
coronary artery disease (2013)
Advice given to discontinue AAS initially. Surgery
at later presentation.
 Spain CR Severe acute kidney failure with high blood pressure,
anaemia and thrombocytopenia
 Iran CR Acute renal failure; muscle injury and rhabdomyolysis Medical therapy
 Brazil CS Acute kidney injury in both cases Medical therapy.
 USA CR Recurrent renal infarction Medical therapy, AAS counselling
 Lebanon CR Acute pancreatitis, acute renal failure and hypercalcemia. Medical therapy
Cardiovascular (n= 26)
 Japan CR Cardioembolic stroke Medical therapy, AAS use discontinued
 Sweden CR Intraparenchymal haemorrhage in right parietal lobe;
right cortical venous thrombosis
 UK CR Acute myocardial infarction Surgery
 Egypt CR Severe toxic cardiomyopathy. Medical therapy
 Canada CR Cardiomyopathy Incubation, medical therapy, resuscitation, dialysis and
device implantation, addiction counselling referral
 Argentina CR Posterior territory ischemic stroke. Intubation and ventilation; rehabilitation
 Sweden CR Severe hypertension Aggressive treatment with intravenous drugs;
 Turkey CR Acute coronary syndrome Medical therapy
 Sweden CS i) Occlusion of all major arteries of the leg.
ii) Arterial thrombosis:
ii) Thrombolysis attempted with no improvement.
 Canada CR Stroke. Upon readmission 3 years later, diffused
distal arterial thrombosis
 Kuwait CR Cardiomyopathy, stroke and peripheral vascular disease Medical therapy
 Portugal CR Severe toxic cardiomyopathy. Medical therapy
 USA CR Myocardial infarction Medical therapy
 Turkey CR Myocardial infarction Medical therapy
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 6 of 15
Table 1 Summary of included studies (Continued)
Diagnosis Treatment approach
 Greece CR Myocardial infarction Medical therapy
 USA CR Acute myocardial infarction and polycythaemia Surgery, medical therapy, phlebotomy.
 Portugal CR Myocardial infarction Medical therapy.
 Turkey CR Acute inferior myocardial infarction, renal infarction Medical therapy, surgery
 USA CR Acute myocardial infarction Medical therapy, rehabilitation
 USA CR Myocardial infarction Medical therapy
 Australia CR Persistent atrial fibrillation Electrical cardioversion, medical therapy.
 Germany CR Severe coronary heart disease Surgery, medical therapy
 UK CR Coronary thrombus Medical therapy
 USA CR Cardiomyopathy, severe systolic dysfunction and Class IV
Medical therapy and device implementation
 USA CR Cardiomyopathy, acute systolic heart failure. Medical therapy, instruction not to use AAS.
 Finland CS Cardiac hypertrophy Surgery, medical therapy. In one case, no treatment
Musculoskeletal (n= 13)
 USA CR Tear in the midsubstance of the triceps tendon. Surgery, immobilisation
 Israel CR Massive rhabdomyolysis Medical therapy
 Ireland CR Quadriceps tendon rupture, patella tendon rupture,
distal femur fracture, patella dislocation in both legs
Surgery, immobilisation, physiotherapy
 Iran CR Quadriceps tendon rupture in both knees and
partial rupture of triceps tendon.
Surgery, immobilisation, physiotherapy
 UK CR Bilateral rupture of the quadriceps tendon Surgery, immobilisation
 Denmark CR Complete rupture of the extensor pollicis longus tendon. Surgery, immobilisation
 Finland CR Complete bilateral quadriceps tendon rupture in both legs Surgery, immobilisation
 UK CR Rupture of both quadriceps tendons Surgery, immobilisation, physiotherapy
 Finland CR Bilateral distal biceps tendon avulsions Surgery, immobilisation, physiotherapy
 UK CR Complete rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament Physiotherapy
 UK CR Rhabdomyolysis. Initially diagnosed with musculoskeletal
 UK CR Bilateral simultaneous traumatic upper arm compartment
 Italy CR Complete tear of quadriceps tendon Surgery, immobilisation, rehabilitation
 USA CR Abscess. Medical therapy; AAS counselling
 Israel CR Full thickness skin and subcutaneous tissue necrosis Surgery
 USA CR Pyomyositis Medical therapy, surgery
 UK CS Injection injury Surgery, medical therapy
 Turkey CR Spontaneous corpus cavernosum abscess Surgery
 UK CR Necrotizing myositis Surgery, medical therapy
 UK CR Abscess Surgery, medical therapy
 UK CR Chronic laryngitis Medical therapy followed by laser treatments
 UK CR Hypokalaemia and metabolic alkalosis. Fluid provision
 UK CR Abnormal lipid profile Advice to stop using AAS
 UK CR Acute respiratory distress syndrome Intubation and ventilation; rehabilitation.
 USA CR Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, acute kidney injury Resuscitation, medical therapy, ventilation,
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 7 of 15
all identified as potentially important factors to be ad-
dressed during AAS treatment [51,52,55].
Two studies were identified in this review where individ-
uals who discontinued AAS use needed treatment for sub-
sequent psychiatric symptoms including depression and
suicidal ideation [87,89]. A further 11 studies reported
treatments for neuroendocrine disorders, primarily with
men who had discontinued their AAS use prior to the
onset of symptoms. Administering AAS suppresses the
hypothalamic–pituitary testicular axis, particularly when
used in large amounts and for long periods, and inhibits
production of testosterone . Men who discontinue
long-term AAS use are at risk of hypogonadism and while
this may frequently be temporary and resolve spontan-
eously, it may in some cases persist for long periods after
cessation, requiring medical treatment [51,196–198].
Symptoms of hypogonadism may be behind the with-
drawal experiences of people with a dependence on AAS
. These difficult experiences have been identified as an
influencing factor in users’decisions to continue or re-
instate AAS use . The limited evidence here shows
that positive outcomes are consistently reported in the
treatment of men suffering with neuroendocrine disorders
following AAS cessation.
Treatment for harms associated with AAS use
The bulk of the evidence identified related to current
or former users receiving treatment for an acute or
chronic condition or injury associated with their AAS
use. This included psychiatric disorders (n= 12), hep-
atic and kidney disorders (n= 31), cardiovascular disor-
ders (n= 26), musculoskeletal disorders (n= 13) and a
range of other disorders (n= 8). The management of
such conditions in the AAS-using group is similar to
that of the general population anddetailsarede-
scribed in the tables in the additional material provided.
There was, however, limited evidence of engagement
with users regarding their AAS use as part of their
more general treatment. There were examples where
participants were stated to have discontinued AAS fol-
lowing treatment and remained abstinent at follow-up
[133,157,159], but patients’AAS status at this time
was not routinely reported.
Treatment as an opportunity for engagement
In a small proportion of studies (n= 10), it was reported
that some form of intervention to bring about, or maintain
change in AAS use was included as part of the treatment
provided. This was most commonly instruction or advice
to discontinue AAS use, with a more substantial element
such as counselling only reported in three studies [139,
145,180]. Where reported, such efforts were based on
suppling risk information associated with AAS but not
support with discontinuation, such as managing with-
drawal symptoms. No form of harm reduction interven-
tions were initiated alongside or following any treatments
provided. Only one study  reported signposting or
referral to another service for further support.
In comparison to people who use other psychoactive
drugs, AAS users are less likely to suffer acute adverse
effects from their substance use, or to have their occupa-
tional performance or relationships impaired and are,
therefore, less reliant upon health professionals .
Research has consistently indicated this group to be reluc-
tant to seek medical help or engage with health profes-
sionals [67,199–201]. Where health professionals identify
AAS use in a patient and are providing treatment for an
associated harm, this may, therefore, provide a rare oppor-
tunity to motivate changes in behaviour. There were ex-
amples in this review of studies that included recent
initiators. For example, in 12/25 studies included here
reporting hepatic disorders, patients had initiated AAS use
fewer than 6 months prior to treatment. Contact with a
health professional at this stage could provide a valuable
opportunity to engage with the individual about their mo-
tivations and substance use before habitual use develops
or becomes entrenched, or identify and treat any under-
lying factors. In a further 5/25 studies, long-term AAS use
of over 5 years was reported, and up to 15 years. For such
individuals, this contact could provide opportunity to test
for disorders associated with long-term use, promote
behaviour change and discuss long-term plans for discon-
tinuation of use.
Encouraging discontinuation and delivering harm reduction
with patients treated for a disorder associated with AAS
Where a patient is receiving treatment, there will be a range
of factors that affect the appropriateness of delivering any
Table 1 Summary of included studies (Continued)
Diagnosis Treatment approach
and refractory supraventricular tachycardia haemodialysis and electrical cardioversion for different
 USA CR New onset of diabetes Medical therapy, AAS advice
 Lebanon CS Spontaneous subdural haematoma Surgery
 UK CR Bilateral internal laryngocoeles Medical therapy
CR case report, CS case series, RCR retrospective chart review
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 8 of 15
form of AAS intervention or investigating any other poten-
tial harms. For example, in many of the studies identified,
the individuals treated had discontinued their AAS use a
substantial time prior to seeking treatment. Additionally,
many were diagnosed with acute conditions, for which im-
mediate, and in some cases substantial, treatment was re-
quired. In such cases, it is not surprising that the acute
harm will be the focus of the treatment. However, where
AAS use is suspected or confirmed, a number of diagnostic
tests may be appropriate to identify potential physiological
or psychiatric harms . Recommendations for general
practitioners who identify AAS use in a patient include
strongly encouraging cessation and management of with-
drawal symptoms in those that do discontinue, as well as
information on injecting practices, promoting alternatives
to AAS and informing about long-term health harms for
those who continue to use . Continued encourage-
ment and monitoring of psychiatric and physiological com-
plications is recommended for those who are not prepared
to consider discontinuation .
An instruction not to use AAS may be effective in
some cases, but for individuals who are highly motivated
to use AAS in response to a desire to change their ap-
pearance or performance, it may have little impact. Ex-
periencing harm or increasing knowledge of potential
risks may not only reduce motivation to use amongst
users who may accept risks as a potential consequence
of use, but also one that they can manage through their
practices . Where it is identified that users intend to
continue administering AAS following treatment, it is
important that they receive appropriate harm reduction
advice, such as on safe injecting, blood-borne viruses
(BBVs) and AAS cycles. For example, in seven studies,
treatments for infectious complications associating with
injecting AAS were reported. There was no indication of
relevant harm reduction work included alongside treat-
ment, such as advice or demonstration relating to inject-
ing or injecting techniques in any of these studies, with
the exception of Rich and colleagues who reported
provision of counselling on the risks of BBVs .
Research over the past 30 years has provided a far richer
understanding of the populations of AAS users, their
characteristics, behaviours and motivations. While the
specific risks attached to each AAS and the probability
or magnitude of harm associated with highly individua-
lised and complex drug regimens cannot be known, we
now have a far greater understanding of the potential
harms caused by these drugs. However, the evidence
base for interventions has not kept pace. The examples
of treatment identified in this review were set within pri-
mary and secondary care facilities. No studies were iden-
tified that explored the effectiveness of any approaches
to encourage cessation or treat dependence within other
settings where health professionals are likely to encoun-
ter users, such as steroid clinics, drugs services or NSPs.
Consequently, there is a lack of any evidence on the ef-
fectiveness of such services for bringing about behaviour
change in users. Within any setting there is scarce evi-
dence on treating AAS dependence, including initiating
and maintain cessation and managing withdrawal symp-
toms outside of case reports of former users seeking
support for neuroendocrine disorders.
The findings of this scoping review are characterised by
missed opportunities. While the failure to report good
practice or supplementary activity is not proof that it does
not occur, without confirmation we cannot make assump-
tions. The extensive literature outlining the symptomatic
treatment of AAS-related harms within numerous medical
and surgical specialisms fails to provide evidence of inter-
vention or referral to address the major causative factor,
the patients’AAS use. This scoping review has reported
only a sample of the myriad of case reports involving the
treatment of AAS-related harms. These case reports not
only demonstrate the lack of evidence of intervention ef-
fectiveness to support the cessation of AAS use or reduce
the associated harms, they also fail to show that actual ac-
tivity occurred. As a minimum, future case reports should
report if any assessment for AAS dependence were con-
ducted. Details of advice or interventions provided to AAS
users or any referral or signposting are also essential infor-
mation. Referrals to primary care, endocrinologists, addic-
tion specialists or harm reduction providers are essential
building blocks in identifying care pathways and potential
effective interventions. Case reports are published pre-
dominantly in clinical journals, often relating to medical
or surgical specialisms. The publication of reports in
broader health or public health journals or journals related
to drug use, addiction or harm reduction would facilitate
the inclusion of clinical experiences within a wider ap-
proach to addressing the harms associated with AAS use.
Despite the comprehensive research and literature re-
lating to AAS dependence, there remains little evidence
regarding effective interventions to support cessation of
use or management of withdrawal. It is hoped that the
development diagnostic tools , guidelines for clinical
management  and harm reduction  or the
commissioning of health services  will be accompan-
ied by robust research and evaluation. Evaluations to
date have been small scale and lack generalizability.
In addition to the need to ensure accurate and consist-
ent reporting of activity and an upscaling of research
and evaluation, there is a need to ensure that interven-
tions are culturally appropriate to the target groups.
Much of the work to date has focused on the bodybuild-
ing communities of North America, Northern Europe
and Australia. It is clear that AAS use is a global issue,
Bates et al. Harm Reduction Journal (2019) 16:75 Page 9 of 15
with research emerging from low–middle income coun-
tries around the world in addition to industrialised high-
income states. Of added significance is the diversity of
individual AAS users. Interventions will need to be tai-
lored to meet the varied characteristics and motivations
of users, going beyond those looking to achieve a stylised
“bodybuilding appearance”or excel at sport or even the
young males attempting to bulk up. Evidence from the
United Kingdom indicates that there are as many AAS
users over 40 years of age as there are those under the
age of 25 years . It is well established that AAS use is
not restricted to men and while rates amongst women
are much lower , the complexities of treatment and
care are undoubtedly much higher [23,204,205]. Preva-
lence of AAS use is higher amongst groups with specific
characteristics such as professions where size or strength
is an asset [206–209], amongst gay and bisexual men
[20,22,29,210,211] and those using or who have previ-
ously used other drugs [30,33,67,212–214].
These “sub groups”may or may not require specific in-
terventions and may merely illustrate the complexities of
human nature. The majority of AAS users will not initi-
ate or continue AAS by virtue of membership of one of
these groups but will have a range of susceptibilities and
motivations for use.
Beyond these challenges, to develop effective services
for users of AAS is the ongoing lack of confidence that
some communities of AAS users feel towards health care
professionals and primary care in particular [30,67,199]
and a feeling that reliable and relevant health information
can be gained elsewhere . Built on the long-standing
dismissive approach towards the effectiveness of anabolic
steroids by elements of the health profession [216,217]
and an ongoing ‘just say no’stance amongst some practi-
tioners, it is evident that establishing trust through listen-
ing to the AAS-using communities will be an essential
element of intervention and service development .
This scoping review of the literature has identified treat-
ments given to AAS users for a wide range of physio-
logical and psychological harms. Despite the large number
of articles identified, the evidence base consists of case re-
ports of predominantly treatment of physiological harms
and there is scarce evidence on treating dependence, man-
aging withdrawal, or initiating behaviour change in users
in any settings. Evidence is urgently required to support
the development of effective services for users and of
evidence-based guidance and interventions to respond to
users in a range of healthcare settings. More consistent
reporting in articles of whether engagement or assessment
relating to AAS was initiated, and publication within
broader health- or drug-related journals, will support de-
velopment of the evidence base.
Supplementary information accompanies this paper at https://doi.org/10.
Additional file 1. Data extraction tables. The data extraction tables
contain the full data extracted from the 109 articles included in the
review. This includes participant information, condition requiring
treatment, the treatment provided and the outcomes of treatment.
Additional file 2. Search strategy. The full search strategy used in
Medline is provided.
AAS: Anabolic androgenic steroids; BBV : Blood-borne virus; DSM: Diagnostic
and statistical manual of mental disorders; NSP: Needle and syringe
GB managed the review and lead protocol development, evidence search,
article screening, data extraction and data synthesis. GB drafted the article
methodology and result sections. MCVH provided methodological and topic
expertise and helped to shape the review through supporting the
development of the protocol and search strategy. MCVH screened a
proportion of articles and commented on findings and written drafts. JT
provided medical expertise supporting the development of the review and
presentation of data, checked data extraction, and commented on written
drafts. JMV provided topic expertise and helped to shape the review through
supporting the development of the protocol, data extraction, data synthesis
and presentation of findings. JMV drafted the article introduction and
discussion sections. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
No funding was received to support this review.
Availability of data and materials
All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this
published article and its supplementary information files.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Consent for publication
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, England.
MRC/CSO SPHSU, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland.
Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England.
Received: 2 May 2019 Accepted: 21 November 2019
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