By: Jo Innes who is a real-life doctor and contributor for Sporting News.
The NFL and NFLPA agreed on changes to their drug testing policy this fall, and among those changes is an agreement to begin testing for human growth hormone (HGH). Five teams are selected each week, and eight players from each of those teams are subject to blood tests. HGH testing was said to be one of the most hotly contested aspects of the new testing policy, and while there’s obviously nothing official on how widespread its use is in the NFL, you don’t have to look very hard to find anonymous players saying it’s common.
What is HGH?
The form used for performance enhancement is a synthetic version of a hormone produced in the pituitary gland. The natural form stimulates the growth of muscles, bones, organs, and is the reason little kids become big adults. Too much growth hormone can cause overgrowth (think André the Giant) and too little can cause slow growth and development in kids, and reductions in muscle and bone mass in adults.
Why would an athlete use it?
There’s a healthy amount of debate in scientific literature about whether the use of HGH is truly a performance enhancer. It’s thought to increase lean muscle mass, decrease body fat, speed recovery from injuries, and seems to work best in combination with other agents like anabolic steroids. Itincreases the connective tissue in muscles, but not the actual proteins that do the work. Muscles look bigger, but don’t necessarily work better. As far as its use in speeding injury recovery, rat models have shown that it doesn’t decrease recovery time, and can increase repaired tendon failure and bone fractures.
Human studies have been inconsistent, with one showing faster healing of Achilles tendon rupture and improved foot range of motion (but with only six patients in the study, you’ll want to take that with an enormous grain of salt), while another showed it had no effect on open tibia fractures, but healed closed fractures faster.
A more relevant review of 44 different GH studies in athletes showed that while it increases lean muscle mass, it doesn’t help strength or endurance, and it leads to soft tissue swelling and fatigue. There’s always room for more scientific study to determine the validity of HGH as a performance enhancer, but the athletes and trainers who use it don’t seem to care if science supports it — they believe it works.
The theory is that athletes started using HGH as another way to get ahead when steroid testing became the norm in the early 80s. The NFL’s new policy mandates a four-game suspension for the first positive HGH test, 10 games for the second offense, then a two year ban thereafter. All of that seems like quite the risk for something that may or may not actually work. But like many things in sports and medicine, actual evidence isn’t always favored over anecdotal “proof.”
Can HGH use be harmful?
Using any drug can be harmful. Using drugs that aren’t prescribed to you even more so, because you probably don’t have the problem the drug is supposed to be used for. In addition to swelling and fatigue, HGH can cause aches and pains, high blood sugars, and may be linked to an increased risk of leukemia. There’s also the risk of throwing away a pro sports career. Clearly the outcome of the new NFL testing policies remains to be seen.