Viewpoint: Creatine may be unsafe for athletes


    Adam Whitten

    As Roger Maris’ home run record fell victim to the forearms and biceps of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire this summer, the Food and Drug Administration took a swing of its own.

    Only the FDA was not swinging for the fences. Instead, it was targeting the muscle building supplement creatine, one of two supplements taken by McGwire during the last year.

    It is also the drug used by three college wrestlers who died this year. Two other wrestlers suffered serious seizures, events the FDA is investigating, USA Today reported.

    “Much remains unknown about whether creatine is absolutely safe for long-term use at levels currently being recommended,” the FDA said in the statement in USA Today.

    McGwire also uses Androstenedione, a testosterone-producing strength enhancer that is legal in baseball but banned by the NFL, Olympics and NCAA. Androstenedione has the ability to raise testosterone levels which build lean muscle mass and promote recovery after injury.

    “Everything I’ve done is natural,” McGwire said in an Associated Press article. “Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use.”

    The difference between dietary supplements and prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications is manufacturers do not have to prove supplements safe or effective before selling them.

    A USA Today survey recently showed 85 percent of the Association of Professional Team Physicians would not recommend creatine until more research is done on its health effects.

    Chuck Stiggins, BYU’s head strength and conditioning coach, said players use creatine during the season, but the WAC prohibits it in the offseason.

    BYU’s first football game this season — Sept. 5 at Alabama — was marred by player after player from both teams being escorted off the field with leg cramps. Cramping is an alleged side-effect of creatine use.

    BYU sophomore running back Ronney Jenkins missed the entire second half because of the severe cramping he experienced. Alabama quarterback John David Phillips missed much of the third quarter with cramping in his hand and arm.

    Coincidence? Maybe. Concern? There should be.

    Stiggins said creatine had nothing to do with the cramping problems BYU experienced. He said BYU was not on creatine at the time of the game.

    Steve Martin, Alabama’s assistant strength coach, said creatine is only part of off-season and early summer workouts. He said none of Alabama’s players, that he knew of, were using creatine at the time of the game.

    “I would bet most schools don’t use it during the season,” Martin said. “The only studies that have been done are for the short term, and for the short term it appears safe.

    “But for the long term we don’t know much about it. Someone will need to do some longitudinal studies down the road.”

    Martin said he would attribute the cramping to the humidity at gametime and the nerves of an opening game. However, while the humidity might explain BYU’s difficulties, doesn’t Alabama practice in those same conditions on a daily basis?

    The University of Tennessee is one school which has decided to limit the use of creatine, AP reported. Tennessee players experienced an unusually high number of cramping problems in its season opener Sept. 5 at Syracuse. In fact, 14 players experienced cramps, the majority creatine users.

    Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer told the AP the heat inside Syracuse’s Carrier Dome contributed to the problems, but he also believed creatine was a contributor. Tennessee will only regulate usage through the remaining warm months. After that, it appears Tennessee will start using creatine again.

    Stiggins said problems can arise when any substance is used in excess. He said the media is looking for answers to the cramping problem in the wrong place.

    “When people use it correctly, there are no problems,” Stiggins said.

    BYU head athletic trainer George Curtis said BYU started using creatine for three reasons: first, BYU was comfortable it was safe for its athletes; second, trainers were confident it would help an athlete’s performance; and third, BYU wanted to stay competitive with other high-profile programs.

    Unfortunately, Curtis is right, to remain competitive with the other athletic programs, BYU was almost forced to jump into sport supplement training. But the question remains, is it right for BYU, or any other school, to subject athletes to these enhancers without any long-term research proving them to be safe?

    Athletic directors, coaches and fans may have a hard time responding to that question, but maybe it’s time they do.

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