The evidence that cholesterol medication is sending you to joint replacement

Ross Hauser, MD., Danielle Matias, PA-C., Marion Hauser, MS, RD

High cholesterol, and its treatment with statins, have been a hallmark of cardiovascular disease management for decades. Many people worry about their cholesterol because they feel they have to, based on drug companies and the media bombarding us with the impression there is a one to one linkage between elevated blood fats and arteriosclerosis. The benefits, side effects, and even the worthiness of taking statins have been under constant attack in recent years. One of the side-effects reports, statins’ negative influence on soft tissue, namely tendons and ligaments, will be the focus of this article.

To be clear, many people benefit from taking statins. The focus of this article is to discuss the research that suggests statins may help joint pain or that statins may make joint pain worse. Further that statins may in fact cause muscle atrophy and deterioration.

Soon after taking these new cholesterol medications, I felt a sharp and sudden pain in my knee

A patient comes in on a recommendation from a friend.

“I am here because I have very bad knee pain . . . here is my story:

I went to the doctor for my check-up. My blood work revealed slightly elevated cholesterol and I was advised that I need to take and was given prescriptions for medications that would lower my cholesterol. I also told my doctor that my knee was hurting, could I get something for it? My doctor asked, when and how the knee pain started? I said I aggravated it with a new exercise program, one I would hope that would lower my weight and cholesterol. My doctor said, “go easy on my knee.”

Soon after taking these new cholesterol medications, I felt a sharp and sudden pain in my knee as my wife and I were walking to our car. My wife drove us home and she got me to the chair and we elevated my leg and got plenty of ice on it.

We made an appointment at the doctors. Here I was given the reason why my knee hurt. 

After a week of not exercising at all, my knee pain, now the pain was in both knees, became so much worse, I could not sleep. My wife began looking up things on the internet. She showed me some articles that said it was the statins, the cholesterol medication causing the knee pain. In fact, she showed me, it is a well-known side-effect.

We made an appointment at the doctor’s where I was told to reduce the cholesterol medication and slowly work my way back up to tolerating it if, in fact, that was causing the knee pain. My doctor was skeptical. 

Even after lowering the cholesterol medication dosage I still had the same pain. My doctor told me to stop taking the statins. After a few days, maybe a week or two, my knee pain reduced significantly but they were still painful. I returned to the doctor and told him that I would try to manage my cholesterol without medications and we will see how I do. I am here because I cannot exercise with my knees like this.

Statins create pain – Let’s start with the research

Statins were not good pain medications

In August 2019, an international team of university researchers and various national councils published these findings in the journal Arthritis Care and Research (1).

Key learning points:

Conclusion: Statins were not good pain medications

From the researchers: “The effect of statins use on knee osteoarthritis outcomes remains unclear, although in our study those using statins for over five years and those using atorvastatin reported a significantly lower risk of developing knee pain.”

Confusing right?

So again, all these research universities and national resources and a long-term study of over 1000 patients came to this conclusion: “The effect of statins use on knee osteoarthritis outcomes remains unclear.”

Researchers suggest statins do not make knee osteoarthritis worse

Now let’s look at two 2022 papers that cited this 2109 research. First, doctors at the University of British Columbia and Boston University School of Medicine publishing in October 2022 in the journal BioMed Central musculoskeletal disorders (2) evaluated the effect of statin use on osteoarthritis incidence and progression. In this study, a group of knee pain patients from age 40-79 were evaluated using an MRI. The patients were using statins . Primarily the doctors were looking for the breakdown of cartilage over the 7 year study period and to further assess the progression of bone spurs, bone marrow lesions, and chronic swelling.

Researchers suggest statins make knee osteoarthritis worse, especially at higher doses

A November 2022 paper in the Frontiers in pharmacology (3) also citing the 2019 research, took a slightly different path in their findings. Here the researchers suggested that “statin use might be associated with increased osteoarthritis development, especially at higher doses. The present study highlights the importance of recognizing potential osteoarthritis risk in the population with long-term and/or high-dose statin use, especially in older populations.”

The story of cholesterol-lowering medications and joint pain surrounds the impact of these medications on inflammation. Are statins anti-inflammatory or do they create more inflammation?

Study: “The only significant finding indicated that increased duration of statin use was associated with worsening in knee pain and osteoarthritis.”

There is no general consensus that statins help or statins make things worse. We highlighted the studies above because these were findings are built on other research that took counter viewpoints.

In 2012, a study from the Netherlands and a team of Dutch university researchers published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases (4) found that Statin use is associated with more than a 50% reduction in the overall progression of osteoarthritis of the knee.

Yet, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers 2013 research published in the same journal the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, offered these findings:

The doctors from the Netherlands responded in print a few months later in proper scientific debate. In this response in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, it was suggested that parts of their study should be re-evaluated to find the benefits of statins. They point out

In September 2022, a team of multinational researchers writing in the journal Current rheumatology reviews (9) gave this firm recommendation. Statins do not help. Here is what they said: Statins are used to lower serum cholesterol. Recently there has been interest in statin’s ability to regrow cartilage.  In reviewing previously published studies, the authors found “the effect of statins on human osteoarthritis is inconclusive: some showing improvement of osteoarthritis symptoms, and others depict signs of aggravation and radiological progression. No randomized controlled trial (RCT) has tested the efficacy of intra-articular statins in clinical knee osteoarthritis, and it seems feasible to avoid oral statin associated severe adverse effects.” Finally, “There are no arguments to recommend oral statins in clinical osteoarthritis of the knee.”

If I control my cholesterol with diet and exercise, instead of medications, my knee pain can be helped without the medication’s side effects.

Here medical and university researchers published their findings in the influential Scientific Reports (7) from the Nature Publish group in London.

The researchers then sought to clarify the contradicting research presented in the two studies above.

They concluded that their results indicate that hyperlipidemia may be an independent risk factor for knee pain and clinical knee osteoarthritis among middle-aged or older adults. These findings have substantial implications for the prevention of knee osteoarthritis through the reduction of blood lipid levels.

Do Statin use in healthy knee individuals lead to knee replacement?

In an October 2018 study led by the VA North Texas Health Care System, (8) doctors questioned the use of statin prescriptions as preventative medicine in healthy individuals because:

Medication-related exposures mean that there is a question that the medication is causing joint pain problems.

What were the findings of this study? “Statin use was associated with a significantly increased risk of non-traumatic arthropathies (wear and tear related joint replacement) and use-related injury.”

The statins were sending healthy, people who exercise to joint replacement.

Our results provide additional data that can inform patient and clinician conversations about the benefits and risks of statin use.

The subnote, of course, is through diet and exercise. Please see my article on The evidence that your diet is destroying your joints and will send you to a nursing home.

Tendon injury belongs to the less known side effects of some drugs. Such as fluoroquinolones and statins

Now let’s move onto the problems of tendinopathy. In late 2018, researchers in the Czech Republic reported these observations in the Czech journal Internal Medicine: (10)

“Tendon injury belongs to the less known side effects of some drugs, reported until recently only for glucocorticoids (steroid) and fluoroquinolones (antibiotics). To date, some other classes of drugs such as statins, aromatase inhibitors, anabolic steroids, potentially causing tendon injury, have been added to the list. (In regard to tendon injury) most often, the Achilles tendon is affected, however, nearly every tendon of the entire body may be affected.

Confusion and surprising findings – Do statins make tendons stronger? Weaker? No effect?

Researcher Pernilla Eliasson who is affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, Linköping University, Sweden, and the University of Rochester in New York lead a team of researchers looking at the complexity of Simvastatin and atorvastatin and its relationship with tendon damage.

The research appearing in the on-line medical journal PLOS (11) examined the theory that Simvastatin and atorvastatin may have different potential for negative effects on tendons. Atorvastatin has been pointed out as one of the most harmful statins for tendon tissue while simvastatin has appeared with mixed findings.

The researchers concluded that normal statin treatment of just seven days  had such a detrimental effect upon tendon tissue indicates that also long term adaptations may occur. The more you take the statins, the worse the tendon damage.

If you have questions about your knee pain, you can get help and information from our Caring Medical Staff

1 Veronese N, Koyanagi A, Stubbs B, Cooper C, Guglielmi G, Rizzoli R, Schofield P, Punzi L, Al‐Daghri N, Smith L, Maggi S. Statin use and knee osteoarthritis outcomes: A longitudinal cohort study. Arthritis care & research. 2018 Aug 20. [Google Scholar]
2 Gill J, Sayre EC, Guermazi A, Nicolaou S, Cibere J. Association between statins and progression of osteoarthritis features on magnetic resonance imaging in a predominantly pre-radiographic cohort: the Vancouver Longitudinal Study of Early Knee Osteoarthritis (VALSEKO): a cohort study. BMC musculoskeletal disorders. 2022 Oct 28;23(1):937. [Google Scholar]
3 Zhang Z, Deng C, Ma X, Wu Q, Zhou F, Liu X. The association between statin use and osteoarthritis-related outcomes: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2022;13. [Google Scholar]
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7 Zhou M, Guo Y, Wang D, Shi D, Li W, Liu Y, Yuan J, He M, Zhang X, Guo H, Wu T. The cross-sectional and longitudinal effect of hyperlipidemia on knee osteoarthritis: Results from the Dongfeng-Tongji cohort in China. Scientific Reports. 2017 Aug 29;7(1):9739.  [Google Scholar]
8 Makris UE, Alvarez CA, Mortensen EM, Mansi IA. Association of statin use with increased risk of musculoskeletal conditions: a retrospective cohort study. Drug safety. 2018 Oct 1;41(10):939-50. [Google Scholar]
9 Siddiq MA, Jahan I, Rasker JJ. Statin in Clinical and Preclinical Knee Osteoarthritis-What Evidence Exists for Future Clinical Use?-A Literature Review. Current Rheumatology Reviews. 2022 Sep 30. [Google Scholar]
10 Alušík Š, Paluch Z. Drug induced tendon injury. Vnitrni lekarstvi. 2018;63(12):967-71.  [Google Scholar]
11 Eliasson P, Svensson RB, Giannopoulos A, Eismark C, Kjær M, Schjerling P, Heinemeier KM. Simvastatin and atorvastatin reduce the mechanical properties of tendon constructs in vitro and introduce catabolic changes in the gene expression pattern. PloS one. 2017 Mar 6;12(3):e0172797. [Google Scholar]

This article was update January 5, 2023

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