The evidence that cholesterol medication is sending you to joint replacement

Ross Hauser, MD

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

An international team of university researchers and various national councils published these findings in the journal Arthritis Care and Research (3) in August 2019.

These are key learning points:

The BIG RESULTS and CONCLUSIONS: 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.”

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. I highlighted the study above because these were findings presented in print in August 2019. They are built on other research that took counter viewpoints.

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 published in the same journal the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 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

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 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.

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

3 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]
4 Clockaerts S, Van Osch GJ, Bastiaansen-Jenniskens YM, Verhaar JA, Van Glabbeek F, Van Meurs JB, Kerkhof HJ, Hofman A, Stricker BC, Bierma-Zeinstra SM. Statin use is associated with reduced incidence and progression of knee osteoarthritis in the Rotterdam study. Annals of the rheumatic diseases. 2011 Oct 1:annrheumdis-2011. [Google Scholar]
5 Riddle DL, Moxley G, Dumenci L. Associations between statin use and changes in pain, function and structural progression: a longitudinal study of persons with knee osteoarthritis. Annals of the rheumatic diseases. 2013 Feb 1;72(2):196-203. [Google Scholar]
6 Clockaerts S, Van Osch GJ, Bierma-Zeinstra SM. Comment on ‘Associations between statin use and changes in pain, function and structural progression: a longitudinal study of persons with knee osteoarthritis’. Annals of the rheumatic diseases. 2013 May 1;72(5):e9-. [Google Scholar]
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]


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