Statins side effects – why you shouldn’t be put off by this rare symptom

Statins: How the drug prevents heart attacks and strokes

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Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the UK, yet many people still shun the lipid-lowering treatment due to its undesirable side effects. Severe muscle pain is one of a number of less-common side effects, though a recent study has challenged the link between the two. New evidence suggests statins are unlikely to be the sole cause of painful muscles – but what’s the real cause of this uncomfortable symptom?

What did the study find?

Muscle pain is listed as a common side effect of taking statins by the NHS, though a study published in October 2021 has challenged the link between statin use and more severe pain in the muscles (myositis).

According to the National Institute for Health Research, a study that included 200 people from 50 GP practices in England and Wales concluded that: “Statins do not commonly cause muscle pain and stiffness”.

The trial used a placebo drug alongside the commonly used atorvastatin to treat patients blindly.

Participants included people who had all stopped, or were considering stopping taking prescribed statins because of concerns about muscle symptoms.

Why are muscle pains a concern for statin users?

Severe muscle pain is concerning for statin users because it could indicate muscle-breakdown or kidney damage.

On its website, the NHS states: “Statins can occasionally cause muscle inflammation (swelling) and damage.

“Your doctor may carry out a blood test to measure a substance in your blood called creatine kinase (CK), which is released into the blood when your muscles are inflamed or damaged.

“If the CK in your blood is more than five times the normal level, your doctor may advise you to stop taking the statin.”

“Once your CK level has returned to normal, your doctor may suggest you start taking the statin again, but at a lower dose.”

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The importance of statins

Despite statins being highly researched and widely prescribed, muscle stiffness, pain, cramps and weakness remain some of the most common reasons for people to stop taking these cholesterol-balancing drugs.

Statins should be taken long term to effectively reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes and prevent a potentially fatal outcome.

The NHS said: “You usually have to continue taking statins for life because if you stop taking them, your cholesterol will return to a high level within a few weeks.

“A review of scientific studies into the effectiveness of statins found that around one in every 50 people who take the medicine for five years will avoid a serious event, such as a heart attack or stroke, as a result.”

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What else could cause muscle pain in people who take statins?

Professor Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has credited the results of the study, which notes that age may be a contributing factor to muscle pain.

The study which included 200 people with an average age of 69, recognised that muscle symptoms such as pain and stiffness are common in the general population – especially as people get older.

Nilesh Samani added: “There is a lot of concern out there that statins commonly cause muscle aches.

“However, muscle aches are common, and when this concern is tested properly, as was done in this trial, the results clearly show that most muscle aches attributed to statins are not due to the drug.”

How to prevent muscle pain while taking statins

While statins are the first-line preventative treatment for people with high cholesterol, there are a number of lifestyle changes which can also be made to improve overall health.

Keeping cholesterol levels low is essential for those at risk of cardiovascular disease and has been proven to be done through healthy habits such as a good diet and plenty of exercise.

Research by a team at the University of Leeds found that statins can cause muscle cells to leak calcium, which could lead to muscle pain.

The same researchers also concluded that moderate exercise was effective in preventing these leaks.

Regular stretching, moderate exercise and a healthy diet can all contribute to good muscle health.

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