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Following the 2007 murder-suicide involving pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his family, many asked if this was a case of ’roid rage. However, nobody seems to question whether ’roid rage actually exists. What’s the straight dope? —Bart Zimmer

You know, there was a time, back when Cadillacs had fins and people sang along to Burma-Shave commercials, that ’roid rage meant heading to the bathroom with a tube of Preparation H. Times have changed, haven’t they?

Steroids, in the common sense of the term, are synthetic hormones. Administered in high doses, they produce an exaggerated version of the physiological changes caused by natural hormones. The type we’re talking about here are anabolic androgenic steroids—synthetic testosterone. The most obvious physical effect of these artificial male sex hormones is Incredible-Hulk-sized muscles. One commonly cited psychological effect is increased aggressiveness, also known as ’roid rage.

Does ’roid rage really happen? Yes, but not to everybody—research to date indicates most steroid users experience little or no psychological effect. But some do report mood swings and increased aggressiveness, and a few flip out. For example:

• In one study, researchers injected steroids into 50 men for six weeks. Forty-two didn’t notice much change in their mental state. Six became moderately more irritable, two others markedly so. And one participant had to drop out of testing because he became “alarmingly hypomanic and aggressive.”

• Another study found that the mood-altering effects of steroids can occur in a very short time—looking at 20 men after just two weeks of testosterone use, there were significant increases in both positive and negative feelings: euphoria and energy, as well as irritability, mood swings, and violent impulses. One subject experienced a protracted manic episode serious enough that he asked to be placed in seclusion.

• In yet another study, one test subject injected with high doses of testosterone became almost certifiably manic.

Having a bad attitude is one thing; going berserk is another, and researchers caution that only a small percentage of users become violent. But reports of psycho episodes aren’t all just media hype. Some investigators reported the following in 1994: “One user, using his fists and a metal bar, seriously damaged three cars, all with their drivers cowering inside, because he had become annoyed by a traffic delay. Another was arrested for causing $1,000 of property damage during a fit of anger at a sports event; another was arrested for assaulting a motorist; another rammed his head through a wooden door; another became involved in a nearly successful murder plot; and another beat and almost killed his dog.”

Plenty of research links steroids to violence and crime. A Swedish study of male prison inmates found those testing positive for steroids were more than twice as likely as nonusers to have committed weapons offenses. A study of 12- to 17-year-olds found that those who had used steroids at least once committed criminal property damage at twice the rate of nonusers. A survey of American high school students found a significant link between violence and self-reported steroid use, even after correcting for various factors.

Steroids produce other bizarre effects. An 18-month-old girl accidentally exposed to topical steroid meds developed pubic hair. Men who take steroids hoping to increase their manliness often experience shrinking testicles, acne, and high cholesterol. Some develop enlarged breasts (a condition called gynecomastia) due to conversion of some of the steroids to estrogen. Testicular atrophy generally reverses once steroid use is discontinued, but gynecomastia doesn’t—five of the men had subsequently undergone breast reduction surgery. Is all this sure to happen if you inject steroids? Of course not. (Chris Benoit’s apparent rampage can’t be blamed on ’roids with any certainty—an autopsy found he’d suffered severe brain damage due to blows to the head.) But considering the caricature of masculinity you become when the stuff works as advertised, the question isn’t whether steroids will turn you into a freak, but what kind. —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.