Potential risks of statins include liver damage, gastrointestinal side effects, and muscle problems. The most common side effects of statins, which are medications to lower cholesterol, include muscle pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. The benefits of statins typically outweigh the risks of statins because high cholesterol is a major risk factor in the development of cardiovascular disease.
Elevated liver enzymes and other blood abnormalities are common risks of statins. When statin therapy is first instituted, blood tests are usually done after about six weeks. After that, they may only be recommended every year. Although elevated liver enzymes are usually mild, they can be severe enough for statin therapy to be discontinued.
Muscle problems and joint pains are also common risks of statins. Although usually mild, a severe medical condition known as rhabdomyolysis can occur. This condition can cause significant kidney damage that may be permanent. Rhabdomyolysis is generally more common when other medications are taken in conjunction with statins, however, it can occur when statins are taken alone. Drugs that can increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis when taken with statins include niacin and certain antibiotics and antifungal medications.
Other risks of statins include an elevated risk of diabetes and stroke. Although statins are typically effective in reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, these medications may raise the risk of second strokes in certain patients. The increased risk is most common in those who have had their first strokes in one of the four lobes of the brain, rather than strokes that have occurred in the deep portions of the brain.
Statin medications are effective in lowering total cholesterol levels as well as increasing "good cholesterol" levels in the blood. In addition, statin medications can lower the amount of "bad cholesterol." Statins also have been shown to reduce other harmful blood lipids known as triglycerides, but there are other, more effective medications that work solely to reduce these blood fats. Elevated levels of triglycerides can contribute to coronary artery disease, although typically not as much as elevated levels of cholesterol can.
The benefits and risks of statins should be discussed with a health care provider before therapy begins. Many physicians recommend other methods of lowering cholesterol before prescribing statin medications. These methods include eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and quitting smoking. People who smoke are more likely to have high cholesterol levels than those that do not, and quitting smoking also decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke.