Are Statin Side Effects ‘All in Our Heads’?

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Statins, the widely used cholesterol-lowering drugs, have well-known side effects, but some of the most common may be caused more by psychological factors than by the drugs themselves.

Researchers looked at more than 10,000 patients who had been randomly assigned to take either atorvastatin (Lipitor) or a placebo. They tracked their reports of more than two dozen different side effects over an average of more than three years. Those taking statins reported slightly more renal and urinary side effects, but otherwise there were no real differences in side effects between the two groups.

Then they revealed to patients whether they were taking a statin or a placebo, and for the next three years tracked 6,409 patients who continued to take the medicine and 3,490 who took none. The study, published in The Lancet, was paid for by drug companies.

Now, when patients knew whether or not they were taking statins, statin users reported a 41 percent higher rate of muscle pain or weakness than those taking no medicine.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Peter Sever, a professor of clinical pharmacology at Imperial College London, said that when patients on statins report muscle pain, the pain is real, but it may have little to do with the drug itself.

“It’s a real phenomenon that if you’re aware of a problem with a drug, you’re more likely to complain about it,” he said.