As a doctor of chiropractic, I do not prescribe drugs. However, I am trained to look for side effects in my patients who take them. I also feel it is my obligation to give my patients accurate information about their health.
When it comes to cholesterol-lowering statins — one of the most profitable and popular types of drugs ever — I find the information we have been given heavily skewed.
You probably have seen the headlines. Studies show statin drugs, including Lipitor, Crestor and Zocor, reduce heart attacks by as much as 50 percent. What does that mean to you? Nearly everyone I asked said that means there would be 50 fewer heart attacks for every 100 people taking the medications, which would be a fantastic result.
In reality, that is not the case. Actually, it’s not even close.
In this study, there was less than one fewer heart attack for every 100 patients on the drug, not 50. The reason we all got this wrong is not because we have poor math skills. The drug industry has done a lot of creative math with their statistics and manipulated the data to look much more impressive than it really is.
For every 1,000 patients who got the fake drug, called a placebo, over three and a half years, there were eight heart attacks. For every 1,000 patients who got the real statin, there were four. This means there were only four fewer attacks in the treatment group, compared to the placebo group. It is true a reduction of heart attacks from eight to four is a change of 50 percent, but this is called the “relative” difference because it is the difference between the two treatment groups.
If you look at the total reduction in heart attacks, there were only four fewer in the statin group. This drop of only four attacks per 1,000 patients amounts to less than 1 percent. This is called the “actual” or “absolute” number, because it is the actual drop in attacks the treatment caused. This is the number we all assumed we were being told when the drug ads said there were 50 percent fewer heart attacks in people who take a statin.
But the actual number of 1 percent is not the one released by the drug companies, reported by the media or told by doctors to their patients. They prefer the much more impressive 50 percent. Using that number is not exactly lying, but it is not exactly telling the truth either.
A medical website called the NNT has been created in response to this type of data manipulation.
Their review of statins is more common sensical. Their conclusion is 1.6 percent of patients who took a statin were helped by preventing a heart attack, though there was no reduction in the number of deaths. That is one less heart attack for every 60 patients. Of course, statins have side effects. As it turns out, one in 10 patients will suffer muscle damage and one in 50 will develop diabetes because of the drug. In other words, you are much more likely to have a side effect than to benefit from statins.
I typically ask new patients who “ache all over” or who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia or restless leg syndrome whether their problems began shortly after they started a statin drug. It is surprising how often they say yes. The same is true of patients who recently have been diagnosed as diabetic. It is common for the diagnosis to be given after a few months on a statin.
When I give them an accurate breakdown of the risks and benefits of their medications, many are upset about it. Some actually feel like they have been lied to. I can’t say I blame them.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at email@example.com.