Increased Use of Statins Could Lead to More Side Effects

Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs like Crestor, Lipitor, and Zocor are designed to help lower levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol for those who are at risk of heart disease. They also present the potential for serious side effects, such as muscle pain and soreness, muscle wasting, and kidney damage and diabetes.

After a recent announcement by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, many more people may be taking statins in the future. This may be helpful for some, but the broad use of these medications lead to additional cases of serious side effects.

New Guidelines Highlight At-Risk Populations

On Tuesday November 12, 2013, two organizations released new treatment guidelines that could double the amount of people taking statin drugs, according to CNN. In the past, it was mostly individuals who had cholesterol numbers in the abnormally high ranges that were prescribed drugs to get those numbers down. Now, however, doctors are being told to essentially ignore the numbers and look at all the risk factors.

According to the new guidelines, the following people are eligible for treatment with statin drugs:

  1. People who already have heart disease, or who have suffered a heart attack or stroke.
  2. People between the ages of 40 and 75 who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
  3. People between the ages of 40 and 75 who don’t have heard disease, but have a 7.5 percent or higher risk of stroke or heart attack. (Calculated with an equation that takes into account other risk factors like age, gender, blood pressure levels, and more.)
  4. People over 21 with extremely high LDL cholesterol levels of 190 mg/dl or more.

An individual who falls within any of these four groups may be prescribed a statin drug. The dosage may vary depending on the level of risk, as determined by the doctor. Age, blood pressure, race, gender, diet, physical activity, and lifestyle choices all play a part in determining overall risk.

Statins May Have Significant Risks

The main goal of these new guidelines is to get away from looking only at cholesterol levels. For a long time, healthcare providers may have had a sort of tunnel vision concerning total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol, withholding statins for those with normal cholesterol levels even if they had other risks for heart disease, and giving people statins who had high numbers but were otherwise at a low risk.

Taking into consideration other risk factors is a good step forward, but that may double the number of statin prescriptions given out in this country. Typically, once a person starts taking them, they take statins for life.

Statin drugs are linked with muscle pain and soreness, as well as with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and severe muscle wasting (called rhabdomyolysis). In June 2011, a study review published in JAMA reported that intensive-dose statin therapy was associated with an increased risk of new-onset diabetes. In January 2012, a study of over 160,000 women found that statin medication use in postmenopausal women was associated with an increased risk for diabetes. In February 2012, the FDA approved safety labels changes for statins, to increase awareness of side effects like liver damage, memory loss, confusion, and increased blood sugar levels.

Manufacturers like AstraZeneca and Merck & Co. are facing hundreds of lawsuits concerning statins and their side effects. Plaintiffs claim that these companies failed to adequately study their products before releasing them to the public, and failed to provide sufficient warnings about the risks.

Meanwhile, the studies about side effects continue to surface. In the summer of 2013, JAMA Internal Medicine published another study of over 46,000 individuals and found that musculoskeletal conditions, arthropathies, injuries, and pain are more common among statin users than among similar nonusers.

“The full spectrum of statins’ musculoskeletal adverse events may not be fully explored,” the researchers wrote, “and further studies are warranted.”