Cholesterol is derived from your body and the foods you eat. Much of your body’s cholesterol supply comes from your liver. Cholesterol is also found in foods derived from animal sources, such as meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products.
Diets high in saturated and trans fat cause your liver to produce more cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in your bloodstream causes the excess cholesterol to form a substance called plaque. This substance builds up in the layers of your arterial walls, making it difficult for the heart to circulate your blood.
If the plaque bursts open in the bloodstream, it can result in blood clots. This can interrupt the flow of blood to your brain, which can cause a stroke. Problems with blood flow can also prevent the heart from getting enough oxygen-rich blood. This can increase your risk of having a heart attack.
Cholesterol falls into two different categories, good and bad. Lipoproteins called LDL and HDL handle transporting cholesterol through the bloodstream. LDL cholesterol is referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it can contribute to the development of plaque. HDL or “good cholesterol” removes LDL cholesterol from the arteries and takes it back to the liver.
Total cholesterol refers to the total amount of cholesterol present in your blood. HDL, LDL, and triglyceride numbers are used to measure the total cholesterol. Triglycerides are fats found in your blood that store excess energy taken from the food you consume.
HDL cholesterol helps to protect you against heart disease. In general, higher HDL numbers are better. Levels less than 40 mg/dL may put you at a higher risk for heart disease. The higher the LDL level, the greater your chance of developing heart disease or even having a heart attack.
The good news is that high cholesterol is very treatable. Statins are a common group of medicines prescribed by doctors. They block the enzyme present in your liver that makes cholesterol. Statins enable your liver to remove cholesterol from your blood, which lowers your total cholesterol level. More importantly, they also help to reduce your risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Statins can lower cholesterol, but they can also cause some unwanted side effects, including:
- muscle pain
- muscle soreness
- muscle fatigue
- muscle weakness
Tasks that were once simple, such as climbing stairs or walking, may now leave you uncomfortable and tired.
The development of the condition rhabdomyolysis, or the breakdown of muscle tissue, is rare, but it’s another possible side effect. This disease can cause painful, life-threatening muscle damage. In addition to severe muscle pain, it can lead to liver damage, kidney failure, and, in rare cases, death.
Rhabdomyolosis sounds scary, but the average statin user does not have to worry about developing this disorder. If you are currently taking statins in combination with certain other drugs or if you are taking very high doses of statins, you are at a higher risk of developing rhabdomyolysis.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has released information concerning the possible side effects of statins. These side effects include:
- liver damage
- memory loss or cognitive impairment
- muscle damage
According to the FDA, the following statins will now contain warnings on the package insert about their possible side effects:
- lovastatin extended-release (Altoprev)
- rosuvastatin (Crestor)
- fluvastatin (Lescol)
- atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- pitavastatin (Livalo)
- lovastatin (Mevacor)
- pravastatin (Pravachol)
- simvastatin (Zocor)
The reason statins cause muscle pain is not known. A lot of research and studies have been conducted. The Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association published a study that highlights statins and muscle pain and attempts to correlate them. Statins may affect certain enzymes present in muscle cells that handle muscle growth. This may cause the muscle aches.
If you experience muscle pain as a result of taking statins, immediately let your doctor know. There are some things that your doctor can do to help. Your doctor may start by taking you off of the drug for a while to see how your body responds. Your muscle pain could be due to the statin, or it might simply be a byproduct of getting older.
There are several statin drug options, so your doctor may prescribe a different drug and see if you have a better reaction. In some instances, a lower dosage of the drug or even taking a non-statin medication to lower cholesterol may help. Remember to avoid overdoing it when exercising so that you don’t aggravate your muscle aches. Keep in mind that over-the-counter medicines such as Tylenol usually do not alleviate muscle pain caused by statins.
Some people are more likely to develop statin side effects. You may be at a higher risk for side effects from a statin if you:
- have a smaller body frame
- have reduced kidney or liver function
- have type 1 or 2 diabetes
- have previously had a heart attack or stroke
- are on multiple cholesterol medications at the same time
- are over the age of 65
Your diet is one of your biggest weapons against high cholesterol. Choose healthy food options and learn to check food labels. Look for foods that are low in saturated and trans fat, and high in fiber. Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet.
In addition to maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, it’s also important to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Seek help from your doctor or a nutritionist to help you come up with a healthy eating plan. Not smoking and limiting your alcohol use are also highly recommended.
About one in every six adult Americans has high cholesterol. Trends show that cholesterol levels in women seem to increase as they get older. High cholesterol also runs in families. Anyone, including children, can develop it.
You may have high cholesterol and not even know it because you don’t have any symptoms. Every case of high cholesterol is different, so it’s important to get it checked as recommended. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults over the age of 20 have their cholesterol levels checked every five years.
Statins have side effects such as muscle pains, but they have been proven to be effective in treating high cholesterol. Under the careful eye of your doctor and in conjunction with recommended lifestyle changes, you can control your cholesterol.