Muscle aches from statins: Real, but sometimes imagined?

The "nocebo effect" may explain why some people believe they can't tolerate statins.

For more than 20 years, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs have been a mainstay for preventing and treating heart disease. But up to half of people prescribed these drugs are no longer taking them within a year or two. The reasons vary, but some people experience what they believe to be statin-related side effects — most often muscle pain. Others avoid statins altogether because of worries over side effects.

"Far too any people think they cannot tolerate statins when they actually can," explains Dr. Jorge Plutzky, director of preventive cardiology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. To be clear, muscle problems are a known side effect of statins. However, serious muscle-related complications are extremely rare (see "What is rhabdomyolysis?"). And when people experience the more common — but less worrisome — muscle-related symptoms, those issues usually resolve with a lower statin dose or a change to a different statin, Dr. Plutzky says.

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