There once was a doc from Manhattan
One day we just fell to chattin’
I asked, “What would it take
Besides a muscular ache
To get someone off of a statin?”
Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system I can get along with. A winter in Nome, Alaska, assignments in rural Iowa, a summer with a bike tour in Michigan, and Urgent Care in suburban Pennsylvania stretched into the fall. Last winter found me working in western Nebraska and, later, in coastal Alaska. After the birth of our first grandchild, I have returned to Nebraska. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.
Merkin’s Law states that any patient given a high enough dose of a statin for a long enough time will eventually hurt so badly exercise becomes impossible.
We call the drugs statins now because the generic names all end with those two syllables, but when they first came out we called them HMG coA reductase inhibitors. We used those drugs for years to lower cholesterol, in the hopes of decreasing risk of heart attack and stroke.
More than 20 years ago, though, a cynical doctor at the back of a lecture hall questioned the utility of that class of drugs if we got no net benefit in all-cause mortality. It seems, he said, that for every life saved from heart attack or stroke, one was lost to homicide, suicide, car accidents or respiratory infections. The crowd laughed at the litany of diseases. A year later, at the same Continuing Medical Education event, we chuckled when the same scene played, and a year after that, nobody laughed. Aggressive drug company marketing fueled the cholesterol hysteria but I never developed a passion for treating cholesterol numbers.
My wife, after 3 years of statin therapy, over the course of 5 days developed such severe aches that her Tae Kwon Do class missed her black belt till she quit the med and recovered. Such circumstances did not endear that bunch of drugs to my heart.
Still, in context, I have the obligation to give my patients standard of care. I tell them about diet and exercise almost to the point of nagging, then I start the statin, and I warn them about side effects.
In the last two years, we have gotten convincing evidence that high-dose statins, regardless of cholesterol numbers, improve the outlook for those at high risk of heart attack and stroke.
Still if a statin patient hurts for no good reason, I tell them to stop the med, but I also test the blood for creatine phosphokinase (abbreviated to CPK or CK).
I outlined my personal algorithm to my colleague, and described my strategy of stop and rechallenge, and, if need be, use of coenzyme Q10.
He told me, gently, that coQ10 does no good, but switching to a lipid soluble statin does.
I found the discussion so constructive I went online, and found, to my chagrin, that he was right, and my past experience with coQ10 relied on the placebo effect.
I stuck my head in his office, and told him he was right. But I also told him I learned to check the thyroid and the vitamin D in those cases. He looked at me with the same amazement I felt when I’d read about lipid-soluble statins.
We both emerged from the experience better doctors.