Jason Loo Siau Ee
Phd, MPharm, RPh
A few years ago, a video went viral on social media, urging people to stop using cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins (e.g. simvastatin – Zocor®, atorvastatin – Lipitor® and rosuvastatin – Crestor®) to prevent their liver and muscles from being damaged. While the video was ultimately proven to be a hoax (the doctor who made the video always wanted to sell his own brand of supplements for high cholesterol), many people still wonder if taking statins is bad for them, and we agree that it is important for you to weigh the benefits and risks of the medications you are currently taking.
When your doctor first prescribes you with a statin for treating your high cholesterol, he might order a blood test to check your liver function. This is quite routine procedure, because statins are known to increase one of the enzymes that are indicative of your liver function which is known as alanine transaminase (ALT). It is important for you to know that in most cases this raised ALT level is only temporary, and even so, having a slightly raised ALT does not mean your liver is damaged. Unless the ALT is increased to more than three times the upper limit or you experience severe symptoms, it is normally safe to continue taking your statin. Only in very rare cases do statins cause serious permanent damage to your liver.
Similarly, some patients complain that they get muscle aches when they take their statins. In most cases, these aches are mild or actually due to other reasons, but patients tend to associate them with their new medication. In some rare cases, statins do cause what is known as rhabdomyolysis, which is a form of muscle damage. However, there are only few such cases for every million patients on statins. Talk to you doctor or pharmacist if you experience any symptoms you are concerned about. Some patients may benefit from switching to another brand of statin.
After reading this, some people might still think: “Well, the risk is small but it’s still a risk I’m not willing to take!” While there are always risks with taking ANY medication, in medical terms we often say that “the benefits outweigh the risks”. There have been numerous studies showing that statins are useful for reducing the risk of heart attacks and stroke. So by not taking statins when prescribed, yes you avoid the small chance of experiencing some rare side effects, but you also increase the risk of having a heart attack in the long run. Overall, it has been proven time and again that it is better to keep taking your cholesterol-lowering medicines, and consult with healthcare professionals over any concerns you have.
1) US Food and Drug Administration. Consumer updates: Controlling cholesterol with statins. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm293330.html (Accessed May 2017)
2) Collins, Rory et al. Interpretation of the evidence for the efficacy and safety of statin therapy. The Lancet ; 388:10059:2532-2561