Statin (Cholesterol) Drugs: Benefits, Side Effects and Risks

Statins for Heart Health

Statins are important tools in the quest for good heart health.
Statins are important tools in the quest for good heart health. | Source

Statin Drugs: Cholesterol Fighters

Statin drugs are important tools in a health care professional's arsenal in the prevention of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. Along with recommended lifestyle changes, statins are the Number 1 weapon in Western medicine to lower LDL cholesterol levels.

Elevated cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, contribute to arteriosclerosis that then may become atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis leads to chest pain, heart attacks, strokes, and poor circulation to your extremities. Because prevention is preferred over treatment, successful cholesterol reduction can prevent chronic illness and death in the long run.

Treatment with statin drugs is likely to be a lifelong treatment regimen. Even if the medication successfully lowers your blood cholesterol levels to normal limits, you will likely need to continue the medication regimen that brought you success.

Some Pros and Cons of Statin Drugs

A gallbladder polyp resulting from excess cholesterol.
A gallbladder polyp resulting from excess cholesterol. | Source

Statin Drugs: Benefits

The main benefit of statin medications is the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis; this is usually accomplished by lowering elevated cholesterol levels. But, as MedicineNet explains, 35 percent of people who have had heart attacks didn't have high cholesterol levels but still had atherosclerosis.

Because the exact mechanism by which statins prevent and reduce atherosclerosis is not yet fully understood statins are often prescribed for people who are known to have other risk factors for heart disease, myocardial infarction, or stroke.

Ideally, beginning to take statin drugs is before high cholesterol levels have had a chance to cause harm to your body's organs and blood vessels. But lowering your cholesterol levels even after atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease has begun is still important in staving off even more chronic diseases -- and statin use not only helps to prevent further atherosclerosis, but also reduces existing plaque formation in your blood vessels.

There are some medical experts who believe that it is possible that widespread statin use in patients could lead to an overall decrease in heart attacks and strokes. Such consideration would have to be weighed against the potential for side effects and any increase in risk of other conditions in each individual.

Researchers who compiled data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, NHANES, concluded that the use of statin medications by a larger segment of the population from previous decades (from 5 percent to now 15 percent), had reduced the number of deaths by more than 40,000 and prevented 61,000 hospitalizations for heart attacks and 22,000 hospitalizations for strokes in one year -- 2008.

Monetizing the results, researchers determined that for individuals who had begun statin therapy between 1997 to 2008, a "consumer surplus" of over $974 billion was created just in the number of deaths reduced due to successful treatment of LDL levels.

Statins May Inhibit Muscle Repair

Statin Drugs: Side Effects

There are few, if any, substance that you put into your body that don't have a potential to create side effects. Statin medications are no different and for the most part the potential side effects are mild. There is are two potentially severe side effects; both occur rarely but they have the potential to be deadly.

Potential Mild Side Effects of Statin Medications: Muscle and/or joint aches are the most frequently experienced symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and weakness are also potential side effects of this class of medications.

Potential Severe Side Effects of Statin Medications: Liver damage and rhabdomyolysis. Sometimes the use of statin drugs causes levels of enzymes in your liver to increase. If that occurs, your health care provider will need to determine if the elevation of your liver enzymes is enough to warrant discontinuing the statin drug. If so, once the drug is stopped, your liver enzymes will return to their previous levels.

Rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which your muscle fibers actually begin to break down, releasing a protein into the bloodstream that causes kidney damage. Fortunately, both this condition and liver damage are rare occurrences, but if you experience muscle pain or continued muscle aches, consult your health care provider.

In Feb. 2012 the FDA has determined that this class of medications can now remove label warnings related to possible liver injury. The federal agency made this determination that serious injury to the liver is "rare and unpredictable in individual patients."

There are certain prescription medications that if taken together with statin drugs can increase your risk of experiencing the more severe side effects. Be sure your prescribing physician knows all the prescription and over-the-counter medications you are taking. One over-the-counter supplement in particular, niacin, is known to increase the risk of side effects when taking a statin medication.

List of U.S. FDA-Approved Statin Drugs

Brand Name
Generic Name
Lipitor
Atorvastatin
Crestor
Rosuvastatin
Mevacor
Lovastatin
Zocor
Simvastatin
Lescol
Luvastatin
Livalo
Pitavastatin
Altoprev
Lovastatin

Statin Potential Drug Risk: Lung Damage

There are some preliminary research results, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, that links the use of statin drugs by people who currently smoke and people who are former smokers to lung changes called pulmonary fibrosis.

Further research will need to be done to determine if this conclusion is scientifically accurate.

Statin Drug Risk: Diabetes in Post-Menopausal Women

A study of the records of more than 150,000 post-menopausal women revealed that statin use is associated with an increased risk of new onset diabetes in this age group. Whether this risk occurs with the use of all statin medications or just certain statins and dosages was not determined by the particular study.

Kirsten L. Johansen, M.D. wrote that she believes the important implication of this research is that the increased risk of diabetes was the same in women who did and did not have a history of cardiovascular disease, something health care providers will want to take into consideration when balancing benefit/risk factors of statin use in post-menopausal women.

Statins and Cholesterol Management

Warnings Added To Statin Drug Class

Updated Feb. 28, 2012: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that all medications in the statin class of drugs must begin to carry warnings regarding the possibility of memory loss and/or confusion and higher blood sugar levels.

The symptoms of memory loss or confusion have thus far been reported to go away when the statin medication is stopped.

An increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes is associated with the higher dosages of the statin drugs and is a small but real risk.

Cardiologists feel the small risks of side effects are far outweighed by the benefits statin drugs provide to individuals.

Potential Alternatives for Lowering Cholesterol

Drug-Drug Interactions Added to Statin Warnings

On March 1, 2012, the FDA added possible drug-drug interactions with the statin drugs atorvastatin, rosuvastatin, and simvastatin -- as well as renewing the same warning for lovastatin: These medications can interact with protease inhibitors.

Protease inhibitors are medications taken by people being treated for HIV/AIDS and/or hepatitis C. Combining these medications increases a person's risk for muscle injury, including rhabdomyolysis.

This is another reason to be sure you share with all of your health care providers all medications you are taking, including herbal preparations and over-the-counter medications.

Research Suggests Re-Start of Statins Better Tolerated

The Annals of Internal Medicine published results of a cohort retrospective study of more than 107,000 patients at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital who had all been on statin therapy.

Over a period of time, the statins were discontinued in more than half of the patients. Seventeen percent of those whose statins were discontinued were due to either side effects or clinical events such as abnormal lab reports. Approximately one-third of these people were again prescribed statins within a 12-month period.

Ninety-two percent of those who began taking a statin medication a second time were still taking the medication 12 months later. Nearly 3,000 of those who had statins begun a second time were on the same statin they had previously taken and 1,000 of them were on the same or higher dose of a statin.

Researchers believe the results of the re-start of a statin medication with no side effects or adverse clinical events suggest that some of the adverse effects assigned to the original statin medication may have had another cause, are tolerable, or specific to that particular statin, not the entire class of the drugs.

The information provided here is not meant to refute or replace advice from a health care professional. This hub is informational only and not intended to diagnose or treat any health issue. Consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your specific situation.

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Comments 20 comments

Brett.Tesol profile image

Brett.Tesol 4 years ago from Somewhere in Asia

I read this mainly to find out what 'Statin drugs' were, as I hadn't heard of them. Your review is very detailed and balanced.

Voted up, interesting and SOCIALLY SHARED.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Hi Brett, it's heartening to hear you were able to satisfy your basic interest in statin drugs with this hub. I also appreciate the sharing.


molometer profile image

molometer 4 years ago

Bookmarked for future reference.

This is a very detailed and useful hub on statins.

I have an interest in this for the usual reasons.

I didn't get much info from my doctor. I have leaned more in reading this hub than I knew and for that I thank you.

SHARING on Facebook.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Molometer, I'm pleased that you found this information helpful. Unfortunately, doctors often don't have the time to provide as much information about medications as they ought to.

Thanks for stopping by and for SHARING.


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 4 years ago from California

Well researched hub. Nice work! When I was with my dad in November I noticed he was taking fish oil as well as the Lovastatin.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

TirelessTraveler, I am currently taking fish oil supplements only in hopes of controlling my cholesterol. It was my health care provider's suggestion I try that before considering statin therapy and I was more than happy with the choice.


BlissfulWriter profile image

BlissfulWriter 4 years ago

Statin drugs can have the potential of lowering the body's Co-enzyme Q10 levels. People on statins should talk to their doctors about taking Co-Q10 supplements (which are good for the heart and a great anti-oxdiant).


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

I appreciate the information you've provided, BlissfulWriter and see you have a great hub on Coenzyme Q10 and its benefits here: http://hubpages.com/health/Coenzyme-Q10-benefits...


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, I also wondered what Statin drugs were, so this is a very detailed and useful hub, thanks for the info, rated up and shared.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Nell Rose, I appreciate the read and the support.

Thanks for SHARING.


Justsilvie 4 years ago

Well researched and informative hub. I take Crestor now and have been taking another statin for 5 years before this. I have the side effects of muscle and joint pain, but my doctor is and the others have been adamant the good outweighs the bad. And I do agree to a degree and know that when I exercise regularly and drop the bad carbs like white flour products, the side effect disappear,

I am still looking into more natural substitutes one of them is replacing Fish oil with Krill oil (My husband came home with a note from the doctor yesterday to buy Krill oil now even he is listening to me about the benefits) and increasing my vegetable fiber. Because to be honest I really don’t trust the pharma companies, because they seem to be making a killing by pumping us full of meds that we may really not need at a price that is outrageous here in the US, but that is another hub.

Will share this hub with friends, Thank you!


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Justsilvie, I appreciate you sharing your personal experience with statins. You and your doctor's decisions and treatment plan point out that there is no "one size fits all" to managing high cholesterol.

I hope both you and your husband find success with improving your overall health.

Thank you for SHARING.


sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

L.L., this is a hub that deals with a subject that more people need to be informed about. Statins are one of the most prescribed drugs on the market. I, myself, prefer to use supplements. The one I'm currently having much success with -- because some of the more effective supplements, even, upset my digestive system -- is Policosanol, a full spectrum cane sugar from Olympian Labs. Thanks for SHARING. Sandra Busby


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Sandrabusby, thanks for your information. I'm going to look into the Policosanol for myself.

Thanks for SHARING.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 4 years ago from South Carolina

This is an excellent, informative hub about the pros, cons and potential drug interactions of statins.

I like the fact that you included links to other articles and also added recent updates.

Voted up, useful and interesting.


healthguru72 profile image

healthguru72 4 years ago from Ohio

This is an excellent and well balanced hub which has really put statin use in perspective. The small increased risk of liver injury and muscle damage is well known, however there has been a lot in the media recently about the increased risk of diabetes and dementia. All drugs, natural or man made, can have side effects. I'm glad you provided a well referenced hub which outlines some of the controversies surrounding statin use. Voted up and SHARED.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Healthguru72, my hope is that the information here helps to provide information that physicians and pharmacists don't always have time to share with their clients. In the end, the patient and physician must way the possible relative risks with the potential desired effect of the statins. In the information I've read, most doctors believe the benefits outweigh the risks in most cases.

Thank you for SHARING.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 4 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

Happyboomernurse, thank you for the read and the kind comments. There is new information all the time and I hope to continue to update this hub to keep it relevant.


Vickiw 3 years ago

Interesting article. It would be so nice if we knew definitively that fish oil can keep cholesterol low. Of course, recently scientists have begun to question the importance of low cholesterol! Sigh.


L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 3 years ago from Oklahoma City Author

VickiW, I suspect that any truly definitive answers about the benefits of fish oil or even the importance of the various cholesterol is somewhere off in the future. Like so many topics in health, perhaps there is just no one best answer that fits every individual's specific needs.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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