Many doctors prescribe statins, or cholesterol-lowering drugs, to help reduce your risk of stroke or heart attack. Statins are usually continued throughout a person’s life.

Unfortunately, statin usage can present certain side effects. The most common side effect is myopathy, a painful clinical disorder of the skeletal muscles.

Myopathy is separated into three different types based on toxicity:

  • Myalgia refers to generalized pain in the muscles. A small increase of the creatine kinase enzyme, which is associated with muscle damage, is also detected in the bloodstream through a routine blood test.
  • Myositis presents itself with muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness and a higher level of creatine kinase in the bloodstream.
  • Rhabdomyolysis is an extreme, life-threatening type of myopathy. It’s brought on by muscle breakdown and significant creatine kinase elevations, up to 10 times greater than normal values. In some cases, rhabdomyolysis can be fatal due to acute renal failure.

As with most cases of myopathy, symptoms originate in the muscles of the upper arms, shoulders, pelvis, and thighs. During the advanced stage of the disease, the muscles of the feet and hands can be affected.

Common complaints, especially in the lower body, include:

  • cramps
  • heaviness
  • stiffness

Symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include:

  • severe muscle pain throughout the entire body
  • dark urine
  • muscle weakness
  • kidney damage

People who are physically active are more likely to have myopathy than people who are sedentary.

According to the Mayo Clinic, several risk factors have been associated with statin-induced myopathy:

If you begin to show symptoms of muscle myopathy after starting statin therapy, talk to your doctor or physician as soon as possible. A blood test is usually ordered to measure creatine kinase levels and rule out rhabdomyolysis. If rhabdomyolysis is the culprit, statin treatment will be stopped immediately.

In the majority of situations, creatine kinase will be normal or only mildly elevated. If this is the case for you, your doctor will likely start by ruling out other factors that might be contributing to your pain, such as:

Sometimes a brief break from statin medication is needed in order to determine if the muscle aches you’re experiencing are due to statin usage or just a part of the natural aging process. Your doctor might temporarily stop your treatment for a couple of weeks so you’ll have time to compare how you feel when you are and aren’t taking the medication.

Decreasing your dose may help reduce muscle pains, but it could also hinder the cholesterol-lowering effects of your medicine. For this reason, your doctor might simply suggest switching to another statin that works just as well but can be taken in a smaller dose.

Healthy lifestyle habits are also encouraged, such as:

  • moderate exercise
  • healthy diet
  • weight loss
  • smoking cessation
  • dietary supplements, including vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and niacin

Muscle myopathy can be a frustrating side effect of statin therapy, but you should never stop taking your medication for any length of time without talking to your doctor first.