Open Access

The aetiology and trajectory of anabolic-androgenic steroid use initiation: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative research

  • Dominic Sagoe1Email author,
  • Cecilie Schou Andreassen1, 2 and
  • Ståle Pallesen1
Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy20149:27

https://doi.org/10.1186/1747-597X-9-27

Received: 7 May 2014

Accepted: 26 June 2014

Published: 2 July 2014

Abstract

Background

To our knowledge, there has never been a systematic review and synthesis of the qualitative literature on the trajectory and aetiology of nonmedical anabolic-androgenic steroid (AAS) use.

Methods

We systematically reviewed and synthesized qualitative literature gathered from searches in PsycINFO, PubMed, ISI Web of Science, Google Scholar, and reference lists of relevant literature to investigate AAS users’ ages of first use and source(s), history prior to use, and motives/drives for initiating use. We adhered to the recommendations of the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s qualitative research synthesis manual and the PRISMA guidelines.

Results

A total of 44 studies published between 1980 and 2014 were included in the synthesis. Studies originated from 11 countries: the United States (n = 18), England (n = 8), Australia (n = 4), Sweden (n = 4), both England and Wales (n = 2), and Scotland (n = 2). One study each originated from Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Great Britain, and Norway. The majority of AAS users initiated use before age 30. Sports participation (particularly power sports), negative body image, and psychological disorders such as depression preceded initiation of AAS use for most users. Sources of first AAS were mainly users’ immediate social networks and the illicit market. Enhanced sports performance, appearance, and muscle/strength were the paramount motives for AAS use initiation.

Conclusions

Our findings elucidate the significance of psychosocial factors in AAS use initiation. The proliferation of AAS on the illicit market and social networks demands better ways of dealing with the global public health problem of AAS use.

Keywords

Anabolic-androgenic steroids Metasynthesis Narrative synthesis Systematic review Aetiology Trajectory Qualitative research Interview

Background

Several qualitative investigations have sought to understand the aetiology and trajectory of nonmedical AAS use initiation. However, to our knowledge, there has never been a systematic review and synthesis of the qualitative literature on this important area of nonmedical AAS use. An investigation of this type is important because a global perspective of nonmedical AAS use initiation is necessary for the understanding of this global public health problem [1].

A review and synthesis of the qualitative research on AAS use initiation is also important in light of expressed concern regarding the validity and reliability of survey research on AAS use [2]. Moreover, it has been suggested that the failure of health practitioners and public health officials to appreciate people’s perception of antecedents and risk factors is a major hindrance to the success of public health interventions [3, 4]. Hence, data on initiation and trajectories of AAS use are important for prevention purposes.

We carried out, as far as we are aware, the pioneering systematic review and synthesis of the qualitative studies presenting data on the initiation of nonmedical AAS use. The United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council’s manual on the synthesis of qualitative literature [5] indorses the formulation of research questions or hypothesis prior to synthesis. The research questions guiding the present study were: (a) at what age(s) do AAS users have their debut?, (b) what are the psychosocial histories of AAS users prior to the initiation of AAS use?, (c) what are the sources of AAS users’ first AAS?, and (d) what are the motives and drives for initiating AAS use?

Method

Search strategy and inclusion criteria

We conducted a comprehensive literature search in PsycINFO, PubMed, ISI Web of Science, and Google Scholar. The following keywords: ‘anabolic steroid’, ‘doping’, and ‘performance enhancing drug’, were each used in combination with ‘interview’, ‘focus group’, and ‘qualitative’ for searches in PubMed and ISI Web of Science. Due to unusually high superfluous returns from the above permutation of keywords, ‘anabolic steroid + doping + performance enhancing drug + interview + focus group + qualitative’ was used in searches in PsycINFO and Google Scholar. The literature search was completed in June 2014. From an initial pool of 10,106 hits, 7,720 articles were evaluated after removing duplicates. In addition, a manual check of reference lists of identified studies was conducted in search of potential unidentified studies. Searches were also conducted in online databases and websites. We identified 4 new articles through this grey literature search. Thus, a total of 7,724 were settled on after eliminating duplicates. After evaluating the 7,724 papers based on titles and abstracts, 95 full-text papers were retrieved for screening.

After initial screening of the 95 full-text papers, 68 papers were identified. Of the 68 papers scrutinized, 35 studies met the following key criteria for inclusion: (a) studies presented original information on the experiences of AAS users (b) studies employed qualitative approaches in data collection (interviews, focus groups, or case studies) and presentation of results, and (c) studies were published in English. Four recent studies [69] and five others [1014] were later discovered and included in the analysis. We again inspected the characteristics of extracted studies for similarities to curb duplicate extraction and synthesis. Thus, a total of 44 articles were included in the analysis. The literature search strategy adhered to Shaw et al.’s [15] recommendations for finding qualitative research as well as the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines [16]. Figure 1 presents the process of the search and selection of relevant studies according to the PRISMA guidelines.
Figure 1

Flow diagram of systematic literature search.

Data extraction and synthesis

The first author scrutinized and selected studies. Smith et al.’s [17] Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used to analyse the studies because it facilitates in-depth exploration of the meanings of experiences [18]. Each full-text paper was regarded as a transcript. The first author read through the full-text papers several times, gaining an overall sense of the themes in the studies through this process. These themes were then highlighted. We developed a standardized data extraction form unto which the first author and another reviewer independently extracted the following data from the included studies: author name and publication year, country, study type, type of AAS users involved in the study, and recruitment site or mode. These characteristics are presented in Table 1. The first author independently coded the full-text papers according to the presence or absence of the following themes: (a) age(s) of first use, (b) history prior to use, (c) source(s) of first AAS, and (d) motive(s)/drive(s) for initiating use. These characteristics are presented in Table 2. Statistical inferences have little meaning in qualitative synthesis. However, the presence of a theme in multiple studies may be evidence of the validity of the theme [4]. In this regard, we have presented all the studies that fall under each theme.
Table 1

Qualitative studies presenting data on AAS use initiation

First author, year, reference

Country/countries

Study type

AAS user(s)

Recruitment site(s)/mode

Annitto 1980 [19]

USA

Interview

17-year-old male bodybuilder

Clinic

Bardick 2006 [20]

Canada

Interview

8 male weightlifters aged 21 to 35 years

Gymnasium

Bilard 2011 [21]

France

Interview

203 bodybuilders

Voluntary

Boyadjiev 2000 [22]

Bulgaria

Case study

20-year-old male bodybuilder

Clinic

Copeland 2000 [23] and Peters 1997 [24]

Australia

Interview and questionnaire

100 persons (6 female) aged 18 to 50 years

Gymnasium, sports shops and associations, syringe exchange centre, radio interviews, advertisements

Cornford 2014 [9]

England

Interview and focus group

30 males aged 20 to 40 years

Syringe exchange centre

Fudala 2003 [25]

USA

Interview

7 males aged 22 to 33 years

Gymnasium and community

Grogan 2006 [26]

England

Interview

11 bodybuilders (6 female) aged 20 to 39 years

Gymnasium

Gruber 1999 [27]

USA

Interview

5 female bodybuilders

Gymnasium

Hegazy 2013 [28]

USA

Case study

28-year-old male

Clinic

Joubert 2014 [7]

England

Interview

6 males aged 26 to 42 years

Addiction charity

Katz 1990 [29]

USA

Case study

23-year-old male bodybuilder

Gymnasium

Khorrami 2002 [30]

USA

Interview

2 male weightlifters aged 24 and 29 years

Voluntary

Kimergård 2014 [6, 8]

England and Wales

Interview

24 males aged 21 to 61 years; mean age 34 years

Gymnasium, prison, steroid clinic and charity, syringe exchange centre

Klötz 2010 [31]

Sweden

Interview

33 male prisoners aged 21 to 52 years

Prison

Korkia 1993 [12]

England, Scotland, and Wales

Interview

110 persons (13 female) aged 16 to 63 years

Gymnasium, clinic, syringe exchange centre

Korkia 1996 [13]

England

Interview and questionnaire

15 females; mean age 28 years

Not specified

Kusserow 1990 [32]

USA

Interview

72 (6 female) persons (mostly adolescents); 14 to 25 years; mean age 20 years

Not specified

Malone 1995 [33]

USA

Interview

77 (6 female) powerlifters and bodybuilders

Gymnasium

Maycock 2005 [34], 2007 [35]

Australia

Interview

42 males

Gymnasium, night club, community

McKillop 1987 [36]

Scotland

Interview

8 male bodybuilders aged 17 to 32 years

Gymnasium

Midgley 1999 [37]

England

Interview and questionnaire

50 male bodybuilders and weight trainers aged 17 to 46 years

Gymnasium and syringe exchange centre

Nøkleby 2013 [38]

Norway

Interview

9 male drug users aged 22 to 35 years

Clinic

O’Sullivan 2000 [39]

Australia

Interview

41 males aged 16 to 36 years

Clinic

Olrich 1999 [40]

USA

Interview

10 male weightlifters; 9 aged 18 to 35 years, 1 aged 57 years

Gymnasium

Pappa 2012 [41]

England

Interview

9 athletes aged 19 to 26 years

Community via snowball sampling

Petrocelli 2008 [42]

USA

Interview

37 male gym users aged 19 to 43 years

Gymnasium

Pope 1990 [43]

USA

Interview

3 male arrested weightlifters aged 23, 24, and 32 years

Justice system

Pope 1993 [44]

USA

Interview

55 bodybuilders; mean age 28 years; 3 bodybuilders; 19 years, 26 years, 27 years

Gymnasium

Pope 1996 [45]

USA

Case study

16-year-old male

Clinic

Pope 1996 [45]

USA

Interview

9 male prisoners

Prison

Rashid 2000 [14]

USA

Case study

40-year-old male

Clinic

Schwingel 2012 [46]

Brazil

Interview

147 male power sportspeople aged 18 to 42 years

Exercise laboratory

Scull 2013 [47]

USA

Interview

7 male strippers

Strip club

Skårberg 2007 [48]

Sweden

Interview and questionnaire

18 male drug users; mean age 35 years

Clinic

Skårberg 2008 [49]

Sweden

Interview

6 drug users (2 female)

Clinic

Skårberg 2009 [50] and 2007 [48]

Sweden

Interview and questionnaire

32 male drug users 18 male drug users; mean age 35 years

Clinic

Tallon 2007 [11]

Scotland

Interview and questionnaire

30 males aged 18 to 43 years; mean age 27 years

Gymnasium

Todd 1987 [51]

USA

Interview

2 persons (27-year-old female weightlifter; 1 former male NFL player)

Not specified

Vassalo 2010 [52]

USA

Interview

39 male athletes aged 18 to 35 years

Acquaintances

Walker 2011 [10]

England

Interview and questionnaire

41 males; 20 to 30 years (majority)

Syringe exchange centre

Wilson-Fearon 1999 [53]

England

Case study

29-year-old bodybuilder

Not specified

We relied on the qualitative results generated from the interview.

Table 2

Characteristics of qualitative studies presenting data on AAS use initiation

First author, year, reference

Initiation age(s)

History prior to use

Source(s)

Motive(s)/drive(s) for use

Annitto 1980 [19]

16 years

Weightlifting

Illicit market

Appearance

Bardick 2006 [20]

Not specified

Weight training

Not specified

Appearance, confidence, media, personal security, psychological well-being, sports

Bilard 2011 [21]

Not specified

Bodybuilding

Friends, dealers, others, relatives, teammates

Appearance, muscle, physiological recovery, psychological, sports, sports norm, other

Boyadjiev 2000 [22]

19 years

Bodybuilding, cycling

Not specified

Sports

Copeland 2000 [23] and Peters 1997 [24]

14 to 46 years; mean 25 years

Not specified

Coaches/trainers, dealers, doctors, friends, gym employees, other, pharmacists, mail order relatives, veterinarians

Appearance, muscle, other, physiological recovery/injury prevention, sports

Cornford 2014 [9]

≤ 30 years (n = 14)

Not specified

Not specified

Muscle, personal security, physiological recovery, sports

Fudala 2003 [25]

≤ 26 years

Negative body image, poor self-esteem, psychological disorders, troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, psychological

Fudala 2003 [25]

≤ 31 years

Negative body image, low self-efficacy, troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, muscle

Fudala 2003 [25]

17 years

Football

Relative

Appearance, muscle, sports

Fudala 2003 [25]

26 years

Troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, muscle

Fudala 2003 [25]

21 years

Binge eating, psychological disorders, troubled background

Not specified

Not specified

Fudala 2003 [25]

27 years

Troubled background, weightlifting

Friend

Sports

Fudala 2003 [25]

24 years

Bodybuilding

Not specified

Sports

Grogan 2006 [26]

15 years, 16 years, 18 years, 19 years, 20 years, 21 years, 23 years, 29 years

Bodybuilding

Not specified

Appearance, media, occupational, sports, sport/social norm

Gruber 1999 [27]

Not specified

Polydrug use, psychological disorders, troubled background

Trainer

Appearance, muscle, personal security

Hegazy 2013 [28]

22 years

Polydrug use, psychological disorders, troubled background

Friends

Appearance, muscle, recovery

Joubert 2014 [7]

16 to 24 years

Low self-esteem, negative body image, troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, confidence, family influence, muscle, peer influence, personal security, psychological well-being, self-esteem, social pressure

Katz 1990 [29]

21 years

Bodybuilding

Not specified

Sports

Khorrami 2002 [30]

Not specified

Football, negative body image, weightlifting

Gym employee

Appearance, family influence, muscle, sports

Kimergård 2014 [6, 8]

16 years; mean age 25 years

Not specified

Not specified

Appearance, muscle, occupational, sports

Klötz 2010 [31]

Not specified

Not specified

Not specified

Aggression, appearance, muscle, other, psychological, sports, sport/social norm

Korkia 1993 [12]

16 years, 18 years, 32 years, 54 years

Weight training

Coach, dealers, doctors, friends/teammates, gym owner/employee

Muscle, physiological recovery, sports

Korkia 1996 [13]

19 years, 23 years

Not specified

Friends, gym owners/employees, husbands/boyfriends

Muscle, sports

Kusserow 1990 [32]

14 years, 15 years, 17 years, 18 years, ≤ 25 years

Football, bodybuilding, negative body image, polydrug use

Coach/team doctor, dealers, doctors, friends/teammates, gym employees, pharmacists, veterinarians

Aggression, sports scholarship, appearance, coaches’ approval, famous athletes, media influence, parental approval, peer influence, sexual attraction, sports

Malone 1995 [33]

24 years

Weightlifting

Not specified

Appearance, muscle, injury prevention/recovery, sports, sport norm

Maycock 2005 [34] and 2007 [35]

24 years, 25 years

Complacent trainers, negative body image, weight training

Dealers

Appearance, aggression, coaches’ approval, peer influence, sexual attraction, sports

McKillop 1987 [36]

Not specified

Not specified

Not specified

Aggression, injury prevention/recovery, muscle, sports

Midgley 1999 [37]

Not specified

Not specified

Not specified

Appearance, injury prevention/recovery, psychological well-being, muscle, peer influence, sports, sexual attraction

Nøkleby 2013 [38]

Not specified

Other drug use, sports/exercise

Friend

Appearance, muscle, psychological well-being, sports

O’Sullivan 2000 [39]

Not specified

Not specified

Friends, gym dealers, medical practitioners

Appearance, muscle

Olrich 1999 [40]

23 years

Bodybuilding

Not specified

Appearance, curiosity, occupational, peer influence, psychological well-being, social/sexual attraction, sports, sport/social norm

Pappa 2012 [41]

Not specified

Athletics

Not specified

Appearance, concentration, curiosity, muscle, social influence, sports, sport norm

Petrocelli 2008 [42]

Not specified

Long-term exposure to muscle magazines, negative body image, weight training

Dealer, friend, external internet, gym dealer

appearance, confidence, muscle, psychological well-being, sexual attraction

Pope 1990 [43]

30 years

Weightlifting

Not specified

Not specified

Pope 1990 [43]

21 years

Weightlifting

Not specified

Sports

Pope 1990 [43]

20 years

Weightlifting

Not specified

Sports

Pope 1993 [44]

19 years

Anorexia nervosa, negative body image, psychological disorders, weightlifting

Not specified

Appearance

Pope 1993 [44]

18 years

Anorexia nervosa, negative body image, weightlifting

Not specified

Appearance

Pope 1993 [44]

24 years

Anorexia nervosa, negative body image, weightlifting

Not specified

Appearance

Pope 1996 [45]

14 years

Psychological disorders, weightlifting

Not specified

Appearance, confidence, muscle, psychological

Rashid 2000 [14]

38 years

Psychological disorders, other drug use, troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, confidence, muscle, psychological

Schwingel 2012 [46]

Not specified

Not specified

Friends, illicit market

Appearance, muscle, occupational, sport

Scull 2013 [47]

18 years

Male stripping

Not specified

Appearance, muscle, occupational

Skårberg 2008 [49]

20 years

Troubled background, weight training

Friend

Appearance, muscle

Skårberg 2008 [49]

21 years

Troubled background, weight training

Friend

Muscle

Skårberg 2008 [49]

16 years

Irritability, troubled background, weight training

Not specified

Curiosity, muscle

Skårberg 2008 [49]

20 years

Bodybuilding, other sports

Not specified

Appearance, sports, sport norm

Skårberg 2008 [49]

20 years

Bodybuilding, troubled background,

Not specified

Sports, sport norm

Skårberg 2008 [49]

21 years

Other sports, troubled background, weight training

Intimate partner

Appearance, muscle

Skårberg 2009 [50] and 2007 [48]

15 to 28 years

Troubled background

Not specified

Appearance, muscle, sports

Tallon 2007 [11]

18 to 43 years

Weight training, other sports

Friends/training partners

Appearance, confidence, injury/illness prevention, muscle, psychological, sexual attraction

Todd 1987 [51]

Not specified

Powerlifting

Dealer

Sports, sport norm

Vassalo 2010 [52]

Not specified

Football

Not specified

Sports scholarship

Walker 2011 [10]

20 to 30 years

Not specified

Gym dealer

Appearance, muscle

Wilson-Fearon 1999 [53]

Not specified

Bodybuilding

Not specified

Sports

Majority.

Quality of extraction, included studies, and synthesis

To assess the quality of the extraction, we calculated inter-reviewer reliability for the two reviewers in SPSS version 20 (IBM Corp.) [54]. Sensitivity analysis is conducted in the synthesis of qualitative research to examine the effect of the exclusion of high or poor quality studies on the overall findings. We assessed the relevance of the included papers according to the four themes: (a) age(s) of first use, (b) history prior to use, (c) source(s) of first AAS, and (d) motivation(s) for use (see Table 2). Each theme was scored ‘1’ thus yielding a possible total score of ‘4’. Subsequently, we excluded studies that scored ≤ 2 out of 4 on the themes and investigated the effect of the exclusion on our synthesis and results. Moreover, as most of the included studies were conducted in the United States, we excluded the United States studies to investigate the effect of the exclusion on the quality of our synthesis and results.

Results and discussion

Strength of extraction, included studies, and synthesis

The inter-reviewer reliability for the reviewers was found to be Kappa = 0.82 (p < 0.001) indicating very good agreement between the two reviewers [55]. Consensus was reached on discrepant extractions through further review and discussion. Thirty-eight (38) of the 44 studies scored ≥ 3 out of 4 on the themes and were thus deemed to be of high relevance. Six studies [31, 36, 37, 41, 46, 52] scored ≤ 2 out of 4 on relevance and were therefore excluded in the quality analysis. However, when we removed the study characteristics generated from these studies in the sensitivity analysis, our themes or results did not change. Consequently, we retained them in the final analysis. Similarly, the removal of the study characteristics generated from the studies originating from the United States did not affect the quality of our themes or results. Thus, they were also retained in the final analysis. The sensitivity analysis therefore indicated a strong synthesis of included studies.

Description of studies

A total of 44 studies were included in the metasynthesis. Participants’ ages ranged from 14 to 63 years. The year of publication of the studies ranged from 1980 [19] to 2014 [69, 11]. Studies originated from 11 countries although most originated from the United States (n = 18), followed by England (n = 8), Australia (n = 4), Sweden (n = 4), both England and Wales (n = 2), and Scotland (n = 2). Moreover, one study each originated from Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Great Britain, and Norway. Twenty-nine studies [68, 12, 1921, 2527, 3036, 3847, 49, 51, 52] used interviews, six were case studies [14, 22, 28, 29, 45, 53], one used interviews and focus groups [9], and eight [10, 11, 13, 23, 24, 37, 48, 50] used interviews supported by a questionnaire. For the eight studies that used both interviews and questionnaires, we relied on the qualitative results generated from the interviews.

Narrative synthesis

We found that majority of studies had participants initiating use before they were 30 years old. In addition, histories of negative body image, psychological disorders such as mood and depressive disorders, and participation in power sports preceded initiation of AAS use for most persons. We also found that sources of first AAS were mainly users’ immediate social networks and the illicit market. Furthermore, we found that motives for AAS use were mainly enhanced sports performance, appearance, and muscle or strength.

Age of AAS use initiation

Of the 24 studies that presented the ages at which participants initiated AAS use, initiation ages ranged from 14 to 54 years. However, only 5 of the 24 studies presented participants that initiated AAS use after age 30 consistent with evidence that about 80% of AAS users initiate use before age 30 [56]. It must be noted that some studies did not specify the ages at which some or all respondents initiated AAS use (See Table 3).
Table 3

Qualitative studies presenting age(s) of AAS use initiation

Age(s) of initiation

Studies (first author, reference)

14 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Kusserow [32]; Pope [45]; Tallon [11]

15 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Grogan [26]; Kusserow [32]; Skårberg [48, 50]; Tallon [11]

16 years

Annitto [19]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Grogan [26]; Korkia [12]; Skårberg [49]; Kimergård [8]; Joubert [7]; Tallon [11]

17 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Fudala [25]; Kusserow [32]; Tallon [11]

18 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Grogan [26]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; Pope [44]; Scull [47]; Joubert [7]; Tallon [11]

19 years

Boyadjiev [22]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Grogan [26]; Korkia [13]; Pope [44]; Joubert [7]; Tallon [11]

20 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Grogan [26]; Pope [43]; Skårberg [49]; Tallon [11]

21 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Fudala [25]; Grogan [26]; Katz [29]; Pope [43]; Skårberg [49]; Tallon [11]

22 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Hegazy [28]

23 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Grogan [26]; Korkia [13]; Olrich [40]; Tallon [11]

24 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Fudala [25]; Malone [33]; Maycock [34, 35]; Pope [44]; Joubert [7]; Tallon [11]

25 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Maycock [34, 35]; Tallon [11]

26 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Fudala [25]; Tallon [11]

27 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Fudala [25]; Tallon [11]

28 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Skårberg [48, 50]; Tallon [11]

29 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Grogan [26]; Tallon [11]

30 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Pope [43]; Tallon [11]

31 to 54 years

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Korkia [12]; Rashid [14]; Tallon [11]

Not specified

Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Fudala [25]; Gruber [27]; Joubert [7]; Katz [29]; Khorrami [30]; Kimergård [6, 8]; Klötz [31]; Korkia [12, 13]; Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]; McKillop [36]; Midgley [37]; Nøkleby [38]; O’Sullivan [39]; Olrich [40]; Petrocelli [42]; Schwingel [46]; Scull [47]; Skårberg [48, 50]; Tallon [11]; Todd [51]; Vassalo [52]; Walker [10]; Wilson-Fearon [53]

Not specified: Authors did not present age(s) of initiation for some or all participants.

Pre-initiation history

Prior to initiating AAS use, participants had diverse backgrounds including sports (particularly power sports) participation, maladaptive relationships, psychopathology, negative self and body image, deviant behaviour, and abuse of other drugs (See Table 4).
Table 4

Qualitative studies presenting AAS users’ history prior to use

History

Studies (first author, reference)

Anorexia and reverse anorexia

Fudala [25]; Pope [44]

Complacent trainer(s)

Maycock [34, 35]

Long-term exposure to muscle magazines

Petrocelli [42]

Low self-efficacy

Fudala [25]; Joubert [7]

Male sex work

Scull [47]

Negative body image

Fudala [25]; Khorrami [30]; Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]; Petrocelli [42]; Pope [44]; Walker [10]; Joubert [7]

Other drug(s) use

Gruber [27]; Hegazy [28]; Joubert [7]; Kusserow [32]; Nøkleby [38]; Rashid [14]

Other sports (athletics, cycling, hockey, football etc.)

Bardick [20]; Boyadjiev [22]; Fudala [25]; Joubert [7]; Khorrami [30]; Kusserow [32]; Nøkleby [38]; Pappa [41]; Skårberg [49]; Tallon [11]; Vassalo [52]

Poor self-esteem

Fudala [25]; Walker [10]; Joubert [7]

Power sports (bodybuilding, powerlifting, weightlifting)

Annitto [19]; Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Boyadjiev [22]; Fudala [25]; Grogan [26]; Joubert [7]; Katz [29]; Khorrami [30]; Kimergård [8]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; Malone [33]; Maycock [34, 35]; Olrich [40]; Petrocelli [42]; Pope [43]; Pope [44, 45]; Skårberg [49]; Tallon [11]; Todd [51]; Wilson-Fearon [53]

Psychological disorder

Fudala [25]; Gruber [27]; Hegazy [28]; Pope [44, 45]; Rashid [14]

Troubled background (bullying, divorce, rape etc.)

Fudala [25]; Gruber [27]; Hegazy [28]; Rashid [14]; Skårberg [4850]; Joubert [7]

The most prominent feature of AAS users prior to initiation of use was participation in power sports such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, and weightlifting. This emerged in 23 studies [1114, 17, 18, 21, 22, 2427, 32, 3437, 41, 43, 45, 50, 52, 55]. It emerged in Maycock and Howat’s study [34] that users:

…had been weight training for three years prior to initiating anabolic steroid use. However, 11 of the interviewed subjects initiated use within one year of starting weight training (p. 319).

Similarly, participation in other sports such as athletics, cycling, hockey, and football emerged as a prominent feature of AAS users backgrounds prior to initiation of AAS use [7, 11, 22, 25, 30, 32, 38, 41, 49, 52]. This is exemplified by Josh in Bardick et al.’s study [20]. Josh was a hockey player who “needed to take steroids to become the best” (p. 138). Similarly, Maycock and Howat [34] highlighted association with ‘complacent’ trainers or coaches as a feature of AAS users prior to the initiation of AAS use (p. 319).

Also, Gruber and Pope [27] recount the story of Ms. A. who “took all of the supplements and ergogenic drugs that her trainer recommended, including large doses of anabolic steroids”. In Maycock and Howat’s study [34]:

Four of the interviewed sample indicated that complacency by trainers and coaches contributed to their decision to consider use. The failure of coaches and officials to investigate large increases in body mass and strength achieved by other competitors contributed to their decision to explore use (p. 319).

AAS users also showed psychological syndromes such as mood and depressive disorders as well as troubled psychosocial histories including divorce, having suffered rape, poor parental connectedness or involvement, and poor social support [14, 25, 27, 28, 44, 45, 4850] prior to the initiation of AAS use. In one study [27], five females initiated AAS use after the experience of rape:

None used such drugs previously…Indeed, prior to experiencing rape, these five women believed that taking anabolic substances was a weakness…Subsequent to their rape, they justified the decision to start using anabolic substances as being necessary to gain muscle mass and strength, because they thought it was impossible to grow big or strong enough “naturally” (p. 275).

Also evident as a feature of AAS users prior to initiation of AAS use was eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa [25, 44]. Pope et al. [44] present the cases of four persons who initiated AAS use due to anorexia nervosa and reverse anorexia nervosa. Negative body image as well as low self-esteem and low self-efficacy also emerged as features of AAS users prior to the initiation of AAS use [7, 10, 25, 30, 32, 34, 35, 42, 44]. Cases 01 and 02 of Fudala et al.’s study [25] recount the stories of a male who “stated that he was using AASs because he lacked self-esteem and was not good-looking.” and another who initiated AAS use because he “felt small and [needed to] become more muscular to accomplish [his] goals” (p. 123).

Use of other drugs also emerged as a feature of AAS users prior to the initiation of AAS use [7, 14, 27, 28, 32, 38]. Nøkleby and Skårderud [38] highlighted drug use networks as well as addiction clinics as major gateways for the initiation of use. In their study, Kristian commented:

I have always been offered steroids at other places as well, but it never came to anything. But when I got here [addiction clinic] it (steroids) fell right in my lap. And it was the same the last place I was in treatment. It (steroids) fell right in my lap, and that made it easy to accept (p. 495).

It also emerged that many AAS users understood the debilitating consequences of AAS but nevertheless went ahead to initiate use [10, 32, 34, 40]. In Maycock and Howat’s study [34]:

Prior to initiating [AAS] use all of the men interviewed undertook information searches. These included talking to friends, gym trainers and instructors, anabolic steroid users and dealers, reading magazines, underground anabolic steroid manuals and medical journals and occasionally talking to medical practitioners (p. 320).

Sources of first AAS

Studies specified several sources of users’ first AAS: the illicit market (dealers, mail order, internet etc.), coaches or trainers, clinicians or health workers (doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians), friends or teammates, gym employees, intimate partners, and relatives (See Table 5).
Table 5

Qualitative studies presenting AAS users’ first sources of AAS

Source

Studies (first author, reference)

Coach/trainer

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Gruber [27]; Korkia [12, 13]; Kusserow [32]

Doctor

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; O’Sullivan [39]

Friend/teammate

Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Fudala [25]; Hegazy [28]; Kimergård [6]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; Nøkleby [38]; O’Sullivan [39]; Petrocelli [42]; Schwingel [46]; Skårberg [49]; Tallon [11]

Gym employee

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Khorrami [30]; Korkia [12, 13]; Kusserow [32]; Walker [10]

Illicit market (dealers, internet)

Annitto [19]; Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Kimergård [8]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]; O’Sullivan [39]; Petrocelli [42]; Schwingel [46]; Todd [51]; Walker [10]

Intimate partner

Korkia [13]; Skårberg [49]

Pharmacist

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Kusserow [32]

Relative

Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Fudala [25]

Veterinarian

Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Kusserow [32]

The illicit market emerged as a major source of AAS during the initiation of AAS use [8, 10, 12, 19, 21, 23, 24, 32, 34, 35, 39, 42, 46, 51]. The immediate social networks of respondents such as intimate partners, relatives, as well as friends or teammates also emerged as important sources of AAS [6, 11, 21, 2325, 28, 32, 38, 39, 42, 46, 49] during the initiation of AAS use.

In addition, training associates such as coaches or trainers and gym employees emerged as a source of AAS during the initiation of AAS use [15, 16, 19, 22, 24, 49, 55, 56]. Clinicians or health workers such as doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians also came up as sources of AAS during the initiation of AAS use [23, 24, 32, 39].

In a 1990 study of 72 current and former users [32], the sources of AAS were: friends/teammates (n = 41), pharmacists (n = 22), dealers (n = 17), veterinarians (n = 10), gym employees (n = 8), doctors (n = 3), and coach/team doctor (n = 1). Moreover, in a 1997 study [24], the sources of AAS were: friends (n = 64), doctors (n = 42), dealers (n = 41), pharmacists (n = 18), gym employees (n = 14), coaches/trainers (n = 14), veterinarians (n = 11), relatives (n = 6), mail order (n = 4), and other (n = 4). It is however worthy of note that in the most recent qualitative studies presenting sources of AAS [6, 10, 21, 38, 46], the only sources of AAS were the illicit market, relatives, and friends.

Motives/drives for initiating AAS use

Motives for initiating AAS use were for: aggression, enhanced appearance, securing sports scholarships, enhanced muscle or strength, occupational (non-sporting) activities, personal security, psychological well-being or satisfaction, physiological recovery or injury prevention, sexual attraction, and for sporting or competitive activities. Other drives were trainers’ approval, curiosity, family influence, use by famous athletes portrayed in the media, peer influence, and use of AAS as a sport or social norm (See Table 6).
Table 6

Qualitative studies presenting AAS users’ motives/drives for initiating AAS use

Motive/drive

Studies (first author, reference)

Aggression

Klötz [31]; Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]; Mckillop [36]

Appearance/body image

Annitto [19]; Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Fudala [25]; Grogan [26]; Gruber [27]; Hegazy [28]; Khorrami [30]; Kimergård [6, 8]; Klötz [31]; Kusserow [32]; Malone [33]; Maycock [34, 35]; Midgley [37]; Nøkleby [38]; O’Sullivan [39]; Olrich [40]; Pappa [41]; Petrocelli [42]; Pope [44, 45]; Rashid [14]; Schwingel [46]; Scull [47]; Skårberg [4850]; Tallon [11]; Walker [10]

Coach’s/trainer’s approval/influence

Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]

Curiosity

Olrich [40]; Pappa [41]; Skårberg [49]

Family influence

Khorrami [30]; Kusserow [32]; Joubert [7]

Media

Bardick [20]; Grogan [26]; Kusserow [32]; Pappa [41]; Walker [10]

Muscle/strength

Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Fudala [25]; Gruber [27]; Hegazy [28]; Joubert [7]; Khorrami [30]; Kimergård [6]; Klötz [31]; Korkia [12, 13]; Malone [33]; McKillop [36]; Midgley [37]; Nøkleby [38]; O’Sullivan [39]; Pappa [41]; Petrocelli [42]; Pope [45]; Rashid [14]; Schwingel [46]; Scull [47]; Skårberg [49]; Skårberg [48, 50]; Tallon [11]; Walker [10]

Occupational (non-sporting)

Grogan [26]; Kimergård [6]; Maycock [35]; Olrich [40]; Schwingel [46]; Scull [47]

Peer influence

Joubert [7]; Kusserow [32]; Maycock [34, 35]; Midgley [37]; Olrich [40]

Personal security

Bardick [20]; Cornford [9]; Gruber [27]; Joubert [7]

Physiological recovery/injury prevention

Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Cornford [9]; Hegazy [28]; Korkia [12]; Kusserow [32]; Malone [33]; McKillop [36]; Midgley [37]; Tallon [11]

Psychological (well-being, self-esteem, self-efficacy, concentration, confidence)

Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Fudala [25]; Joubert [7]; Klötz [31]; Midgley [37]; Nøkleby [38]; Olrich [40]; Petrocelli [42]; Pope [45]; Rashid [14]; Tallon [11]; Walker [10]

Sexual attraction/attractiveness

Kusserow [32]; Olrich [40]; Petrocelli [42]; Tallon [11]

Sport/social norm

Bilard [21]; Grogan [26]; Klötz [31]; Malone [33]; Olrich [40]; Pappa [41]; Skårberg [49]; Todd [51]; Kimergård [8]

Sports

Bardick [20]; Bilard [21]; Boyadjiev [22]; Copeland [23] and Peters [24]; Fudala [25]; Grogan [26]; Joubert [7]; Katz [29]; Khorrami [30]; Klötz [31]; Korkia [12, 13]; Kimergård [6]; Kusserow [32]; Malone [33]; Maycock [34, 35]; McKillop [36]; Midgley [37]; Nøkleby [38]; Olrich [40]; Pappa [41]; Pope [43]; Schwingel [46]; Skårberg [4850]; Todd [51]; Wilson-Fearon [53]

Sports scholarship

Kusserow [32]; Vassalo [52]

Of the above motives and drives, initiation of AAS use for enhanced appearance or body image, muscle or strength, and sports or athletic performance were most prominent in the literature. Indeed, in a study of Australian AAS users [24], the most paramount motives for the initiation of AAS use were improved appearance (46%), increase in size (33%), increase in strength (7%), and improved sporting performance (6%). Case 04 of Fudala et al.’s study [25] also tells the story of a 22-year-old male who initiated AAS use at the age of 17 “in order to increase his size and power for football” and consecutively increased his AAS consumption “in order to compete in bodybuilding events”. Paula, a 39-year-old affirms the relationship between her AAS use and sports participation in Grogan et al.’s study [26] with the confession “I will stop [using steroids] when I stop competing yeah” (p. 853). Similarly, others initiated AAS use for physiological recovery or injury prevention [9, 11, 12, 20, 21, 23, 24, 28, 32, 33, 36, 37].

Related to enhanced sports performance, enhanced occupational functioning also emerged as motive for the initiation of AAS use [6, 26, 34, 35, 40, 46, 47]. In support of this motive, Matt, a 33-year-old male stripper commented in Scull’s study [47]: “All the guys [male strippers] take steroids, you know?…See, you won’t last long in this industry if you don’t use steroids. They all do steroids” (p. 567). Improved occupational functioning was again highlighted in Maycock and Howat’s study [35]:

For the doormen and security workers, it was about projecting physical competence; for the power lifters, it was about projecting the image of brute strength; for the sex workers or gay men using for body image reasons, it was about the presentation of a natural healthy look. For bodybuilders, it was about projecting their muscles, size and shape (p. 861).

Sexual attraction or attractiveness also emerged as an important motive for the initiation of AAS use [11, 32, 40, 42]. This is highlighted by Kusserow’s [32] finding that 18% of AAS users initiated use in order to “be more successful with the opposite sex” (p. 7). In addition, Petrocelli et al. [42] indicated that AAS use:

increased and enhanced [users’] confidence and love life, as they claimed having a defined, muscular physique allowed them to meet and have sexual relations with more partners (p. 1194).

Social pressure in the form of media influence, peer influence, and sport or social norms also emerged as an important drive for the initiation of AAS use. Related to this, Petrocelli et al. [42] found long-term exposure to muscle magazines as a feature of AAS users prior to initiation of AAS use. In addition, Joe a 29-year-old male commented: “I came from a solid family that stressed competition and giving it 110%. So when I didn’t see the results in the gym, I went to steroids” [22, p. 10]. In Grogan et al.’s study [26], John, a 25-year-old indicated:

The more I trained, the more magazines I looked at, the bigger I wanted to be. …and there was an ITV programme [about body builders] and when I watched these people it made me feel really depressed. I didn’t look as good as them. And it had a massive effect on my decision to take steroids. In fact it was probably one of the biggest reasons why I did take them seeing other people bigger than me (p. 853).

There is however contrary evidence of the influence of media on AAS use. In Walker and Joubert’s study [10], 66% of respondents stated that the media had no influence on their desire to use AAS although these respondents believed that most muscular men portrayed in the media use AAS.

Moreover, psychological well-being emerged as an important motive for the initiation of AAS use [7, 10, 11, 14, 20, 21, 25, 31, 37, 38, 40, 42, 45]. Specific psychological motives for initiating use included boosting self-esteem, confidence, concentration, and overcoming psychological disorders such as depression.

It is important to note however that motives for AAS use may change with time. For instance, in an Australian study [24], 46% of users indicated that they initiated use in order to improve their appearance. However, only 35% of these respondents mentioned improved appearance as motive for their most recent use indicating motive change in some users after initiation. Disparities were also discovered for other motives (p. 37). A security worker also elucidated motive change in a recent study by Kimergård [6]:

At this moment in time, I’m not looking to get any bigger as a bodybuilder for example. I like to increase my strength, and now it’s more for conditioning…My next cycle, I’ll be doing a ‘cutting’ cycle, I’ll be dieting and getting down to a reasonable healthy weight (p. 3).

Implications for research

The results of our study have important implications for future investigations. First, unnecessary replication of qualitative research may be avoided when systematic reviews and qualitative syntheses are conducted prior to the execution of new qualitative research. In addition, all studies were conducted in Western countries. This is problematic as there is evidence that nonmedical AAS use represents a global public health problem [1]. Thus, future studies must as well endeavour to investigate the experiences of AAS users in non-Western countries.

Our findings also reveal a relative paucity of qualitative investigations on the influence of backgrounds of anorexia nervosa, complacent trainers, use of other appearance and performance enhancing drugs and methods, long-term exposure to media images of muscular persons, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, and male sex work on the initiation of AAS use. Moreover, scant qualitative studies have examined the influence of motives and drives such as securing sports scholarships, coaches’ or trainers’ approval, the search for confidence, curiosity, the influence of famous athletes, family influence, and personal security on the initiation of AAS use. Thus, future studies should examine these topics.

Implications for policy and practice

Arguably, our findings represent an important basis for policymaking and planning. First, with evidence from the present study that most AAS users initiate use under 30 years, AAS use interventions should focus primarily on adolescents and young adults. Thus preventive interventions should be tailored mainly for these age cohorts. In addition, with evidence from our study that negative body image, psychological disorders, and sports participation (particularly in power sports) precede initiation of AAS use for most persons, AAS use interventions must target persons demonstrating these characteristics as well as focus on relevant environments.

Moreover, AAS use interventions must be targeted at individuals with: eating disorders, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, ‘doping-complacent’ trainers, long-term exposure to media images of muscular persons, troubled backgrounds, drug use histories and milieus, and psychological disorders. AAS use interventions should also be aimed at athletes especially power sportspeople, doormen and security workers, male sex workers, and gay men as these groups emerged as popular AAS users in this qualitative metasynthesis.

Again, it is worrying that although some AAS users appreciated the debilitating consequences of AAS, they nevertheless went ahead to initiate use [6, 10, 32, 34, 40]. We also found that sources of first AAS were mainly users’ immediate social networks and the illicit market. Furthermore, it is worthy of note that in the most recent qualitative studies presenting sources of AAS [6, 10, 21, 38, 46], the only sources were the illicit market, relatives, and friends. This is perhaps attributable to the increasing illegalization of AAS use since the 1990s [1]. Nevertheless, with the proliferation of both legal and illegal substances on the illicit market and the internet, as well as the expectedly ‘drug-clean’ environments of addiction clinics [38], better ways of dealing with the global public health problem of AAS use will need to be found.

Strengths and weaknesses

The present study has several strengths. To our knowledge, it is the first-ever systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies on AAS use initiation. The systematic and advanced strategy for identifying, reporting, and synthesizing qualitative studies, the ‘global’ and comprehensive nature of the present study, and the inclusion of a large number of both peer-reviewed and grey literature are also notable assets.

Despite the aforementioned strengths of the present study, some limitations ought to be noted when interpreting our results. First, we restricted our analysis to English language literature. Though this is not an uncommon practice for systematic reviews [57], it is possible that the exclusion of non-English language literature influenced our results. However, it must be noted that Moher et al. [57] found no evidence of biased results with the exclusion of non-English studies. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out again that our themes and results were robust in the sensitivity analysis. Furthermore, it is plausible that the case studies included in the present study were reported due to their ‘unusual’ or ‘exceptional’ nature. Thus, these cases may not be representative of the typical AAS user.

Conclusions

Arguably, our findings represent an important basis for AAS use interventions. Findings from the present study denote the importance of psychological and social factors in the initiation of AAS use. Our findings also complement available evidence from quantitative studies on the initiation of AAS use. There is the need for improved ways of dealing with the global problem of AAS use with the increased availability of both legal and illegal substances on the illicit market and the internet.

Authors’ information

DS is a PhD research fellow at the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen, Norway. He conducts research on image and performance enhancing drugs and methods with special focus on anabolic-androgenic steroids. He also works on other drug and behavioural addictions. CSA is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen, Norway, and a clinical psychologist at the Bergen Clinics Foundation, Norway. She conducts research in the area of work, industrial and organizational psychology, as well as drug and behavioural addictions. SP is a professor of psychology at the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen, Norway, and a senior researcher at the Norwegian Competence Centre for Sleep Disorders. He conducts research on sleep and sleep disorders as well as drug and behavioural addictions.

Declarations

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Jim McVeigh for his contribution to the literature search process. We thank Philomena Antwi for reviewing studies included in the narrative synthesis.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen
(2)
The Competence Centre, Bergen Clinics Foundation

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© Sagoe et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. 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.

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