Human growth hormone (HGH) has been a performance-enhancing drug most commonly associated with famous professional athletes. Due to the high cost and the difficulty obtaining the medication, it has been thought to be a drug not widely abused by high school or college athletes or adults playing recreational sports or exercise. As the drug has become more available over the Internet, it seems likely that more athletes would experiment with HGH.

A study done by Brian Brennan et al. published in the January-February 2011 edition of The American Journal on Addictions looks at abuse of human growth hormone among male weightlifters. The authors recruited male weightlifters aged 18 to 40 in California, Florida, and Massachusetts. Of the 231 that were included in the study, 43% reported using anabolic-androgenic steroids at some point in their lives. 26 of those reported using HGH at some point. Interestingly, the users of human growth hormone reported a much longer history of anabolic-androgenic steroid use compared to the steroid users who had never experimented with HGH. There was also noted to be overlap between human growth hormone abuse and classic substance abuse such as illicit drugs and alcohol.

Is HGH use or abuse common?

Young male weightlifters obviously aren’t the only population to abuse HGH. In fact, prescriptions for human growth hormone have become more frequent from “anti-aging” clinics. Media attention in professional sports has shed light on the use of human growth hormone among elite athletes as well. While some of the long-term side effects of HGH abuse are unknown, it has been associated with acromegaly from use of prolonged supraphysiologic levels. Some of the adverse effects of acromegaly include cardiomyopathy, heart arrhythmias, and high blood pressure, and it may lead to impaired respiratory function, diabetes mellitus, and possibly increased risk of cancers.

I think that this study does point out that HGH use and abuse are becoming more common, and we as physicians, coaches, and parents need to become more aware of its use. We need to ask our kids as well as players on our teams about using HGH and other drugs and educate them to the possible side effects of HGH. We also need to be aware of polysubstance abuse and the concern about human growth hormone use in people with known alcohol and drug abuse or anabolic-androgenic steroid use. With the increasing availability of HGH, decreasing prices, and easier availability on the Internet, it is likely to become even more accessible to the average athlete.