Skip to comments.Vioxx. Celebrex. Now Aleve. What's a Patient to Think?
Posted on 12/29/2004 12:38:09 PM PST by neverdem
When Audrey Eisen flicked her computer on last Monday night and read the news that the painkiller Aleve had been linked to heart attacks, she winced in disbelief.
Ms. Eisen, 64, a retired professor who lives in New York, had just returned from her drugstore with a package of Aleve. Her pharmacist allowed her to return it the next morning, no questions asked.
It was the third painkiller in four months that Ms. Eisen, who has degenerative spine and disk disease, had quit abruptly because of studies linking the drugs to heart attacks. She flushed her Vioxx down the toilet in September, after it was withdrawn from the market, and switched to Celebrex. But when problems surfaced with Celebrex this month, she had to stop that, too.
"I was extremely angry," said Ms. Eisen, whose father, two uncles, and grandparents died of heart disease. "Now I just don't trust the Food and Drug Administration anymore. I told a friend of mine, who had also been on Celebrex, that I was sure there'd be some other surprise in a few days."
Many Americans who have relied for pain relief on pills believed to be safe say their faith has been eroded in the system intended to protect them. Longtime users of Celebrex and similar drugs are swearing off them, even though the details of the studies that led to the recent warnings are still under wraps, and other studies have found no added dangers.
Some doctors say they are concerned their patients may be overreacting, but psychologists who study how people evaluate risks say the widespread anxiety, raft of lawsuits and feelings of broken trust are neither surprising nor, necessarily, unwarranted.
"Based on what we know so far, it's understandable that people are worried that any risk that emerges with these drugs is probably the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
"They hear that there was one study that didn't find an increase in heart attacks, but then they think, 'O.K., but how many studies have been suppressed?' " Dr. Loewenstein said. "There's a danger of a cataclysmic reduction or collapse of trust in physicians and in the government, and what we're seeing now could be a leading indicator of that."
Studies show that most people, learning of a drug's potentially deadly side effects or some other potential hazard, will accept a certain amount of danger if they feel they have unfiltered information and can properly weigh the risks. But in the last few months, the bad news trickling out of drug companies and from federal health officials has been murky and confusing, psychologists say.
"It's not like there's good information and people don't understand it," said Dr. Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon. "There's lousy information and people are frustrated and acting appropriately."
Vioxx was pulled from the shelves by Merck in September when a large clinical trial linked it to heart attacks. On Thursday, responding to evidence that Celebrex and Bextra may pose the same risks, the F.D.A. recommended that physicians limit their use of the drugs. But the agency has come under criticism that it first learned Vioxx was unsafe several years ago, and the news on Thursday prompted consumer groups to say the agency was once again siding with drug companies by not acting more forcefully.
In the meantime, millions of people on Celebrex are forced to make sense of conflicting data on the drug's safety. One study has linked it to heart problems at high doses; two others, including one last week, showed no such risks. And because the studies were intended to look at the drug's effectiveness in preventing colon polyps or warding off Alzheimer's, experts say it is unclear whether the researchers controlled for underlying risks of heart disease like weight, age and smoking. The National Institutes of Health has not yet released that information.
It also remains unclear whether Celebrex succeeded in helping prevent the recurrence of polyps in the study that was halted: the Merck study of Vioxx that led to the drug's withdrawal found that the medication had an effect in reducing polyps.
"It is unfortunate that physicians and patients have limited data, some of it in direct conflict with existing conclusions, causing anxiety that at this time cannot be definitively confirmed nor refuted," Dr. Elizabeth Tindall, president of the American College of Rheumatology, said in a statement last week.
Experts say that patients debating whether to continue their pain medications should meet with their doctors to determine their risk of heart disease. They can also calculate their long-term risk at a Web site set up by the health institutes, hin.nhlbi.nih.gov/atpiii/calculator.asp?usertype=pub.
Meanwhile, Dr. Fischhoff said, the results from the Celebrex trials will not be helpful to most people until they are combined and analyzed, indicating the drug's overall risk. That information, he said, is particularly crucial for people who feel strongly that Celebrex works for them, but are worried about its potential cardiovascular dangers.
"If you look at one study, you're more likely to get a statistically significant effect than if you pool the results," he said. "If I'm somebody who's in dire pain, and this is the only thing that works for me, I need the overall effect size. When I have that, then I might be able to say, 'O.K., given the improvement in my quality of life, I'm willing to take that 1 in 100 chance of death.' "
Instead, patients are struggling to piece together information. What perhaps has most outraged people is a collective sense that facts are being concealed, making people feel that they are unwittingly playing with danger.
Dr. George Gray, the executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, pointed to the furor that erupted two months ago when federal health officials announced a shortage of flu vaccine and urged restrictions on who should be immunized. Almost immediately, people began flooding their local health clinics - some who had never bothered to get vaccinated before - clamoring for shots.
"Everybody was going bonkers," Dr. Gray said.
But now that there is plenty of vaccine, no one is getting immunized, he said. The demand has dwindled so much that a federal advisory committee recommended a little over a week ago that the restraints on immunizations should be eased, fearing that tens of thousands of doses of vaccine will go to waste.
"When it means that someone else is controlling whether or not I may be in danger, whether it's not letting me have the flu shot or not telling me about the potential risks of these medications, then people will react in ways that can seem out of proportion to the actual risk," Dr. Gray said.
People will also react more acutely if they feel they were put in danger by the very person or thing that was supposed to protect them.
So the fact that the warnings involved a drug that people took each morning thinking it would make them healthier is particularly troubling to the public, some experts say, as is the fact that health officials who were supposed to look out for them may have instead neglected to alert them about serious side effects.
"It's like if someone is assaulted by a security guard, or if an air bag malfunctions and endangers them," said Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and the author of "Risk and Reason."
"The degree of alarm and outrage is because something that's supposed to make people safe is really putting them at risk," Mr. Sunstein said.
The recent news may have prompted millions of people to throw away their pills in anger. But the past suggests that many will eventually return to them, deciding that their lives are unbearable without them or that their other options are far worse.
In 2002, for example, after a large study found that hormone replacement therapy could increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke and breast cancer, menopausal women were strongly urged to quit their hormone regimens. Millions did. But over time, experts say, many women found the hot flashes, insomnia and night sweats excruciating, and returned to hormone therapy.
"There's usually a very big initial reaction, and then people come back," Dr. Loewenstein said. "Once they get used to side effects, people tend to become very complacent."
Mignon Kaplan, a ballet teacher who lives in New York, is among those who decided that returning to a cox-2 inhibitor was worth the risks. Mrs. Kaplan, who used Celebrex to treat her arthritis for four years, said she stopped taking the drug after Vioxx was pulled from the market.
In October, when her arthritis pain grew overwhelming, she went back on Celebrex, but then stopped again when it was tied to heart problems. Her doctor wrote her a prescription for Voltaren, an older arthritis drug that scared her back to Celebrex.
"It came with pages and pages of side effects," she said. "They looked even worse than Celebrex's. It said contact your doctor if you experience blood in your vomit, bloody or black stool, dizziness, yellowing of the skin. I thought, I don't want these things. I've been taking Celebrex for a long time and it's agreed with me, so I called my doctor and said put me back on Celebrex."
Mrs. Kaplan's physician, Dr. Fred Pescatore, an internist in Manhattan, said about 70 percent of his patients had stopped taking Celebrex and other cox-2 inhibitors since September. He said he pleaded with Mrs. Kaplan to do the same. She refused, agreeing only to switch to a lower dose.
"She figured that the devil she knows is better than the devil she doesn't know," he said.
Or just live with the pain!
My dad had to take a similar course of action.
He has had arthritis since he was my age (34).
Now he is in pain most of the time and doesn't know what he should take.
Your heart will explode, but you won't feel pain....
He should take vioxx (if he has any left), celebrex, or alleve at the lower-scale of the recommended doses.
Perhaps cycle them . .. 10 days one, 10 days the next.
IN ALL PROBABILITY, this is JUNK SCIENCE. The test are for SOME people at HIGH doses.
In sum, because .01% of the people have problems 99.99% will be in pain so the drug companies can (senisbly, from their persepctive) avoid lawsuits.
This patient thinks that the FDA/Pharma complex has become way too cozy.
FDA funding now comes directly from pharmaceutical companies, and they get no further funding from drugs that they do not approve.
When a drug company enrolls a new product for FDA approval, they also hand over $500,000 for oversight expenses, and they keep handing over more and more money until the drug is either approved or terminated.
The FDA is not an independent body. They routinely gag investigators who raise alarms about new products.
That is EXACTLY how the Vioxx episode occurred. The people in the FDA who were against its approval were ordered to shut up.
Abolish the FDA.
Trial lawyers are the scum of the earth, but at least they are independent of the pharmaceutical companies.
Sad to say, drug regulation by lawsuit is a lot more honest and effective than drug regulation by the FDA.
Convince your Dad to get back on Celebrex. Seriously. I mean, what's the big deal? An increased risk of heart attack---even though the risk remains low---versus constant pain. I'll tell you what I'd pick at his age.
Stick to a glass of wine and a couple of Advils.
My dad is 59.
He lost his favorite brother a few years back to a massive heart attack, and heart disease runs in my family.
He hasn't mentioned it but I am sure that's his motivation for quitting both.
My mom has tried to convince him to stay on the Celebrex but he's quite stubborn, just like his son. ;)
It isn't that simple. My father-in-law had been taking Vioxx and Celebrex for a about a year for pain, both at different times. Since his pain threshold was so high (he also took valium for pain at times that did not touch it) he was instructed to take higher doses by his doctors. He was a Marine who was a radio operator in Vietnam and who had endured more medical issues since then than most can imagine. He never complained, just did what the doctors told him to.
He passed away on December 2 from a massive heart attack. As painful as that has been, hearing about the dangers of these drugs after we had just buried this proud Marine hurt worse. Of course, he was doing just what the doctors told him to do. They were advising him based on the manufacturer's recommendations, which said higher doses were safe. Now we know differently.
BTW - The ONLY over the counter medication he ever took for anything pain related was Aleve, since his son, my brother-in-law, worked at Bayer where it was made.
Oh yeah, my father-in-law was 59 years old. He was an athlete in his younger days, though with only one leg he was confined to a wheelchair the last 6 years. Overall, however, he was relatively healthy and his family has no history of heart problems.
Well, hey, we've all gotta make our own choices, I guess. All I know is that both Vioxx and Celebrex have been a godsend to many in severe pain. Seems the risk ought to be worth it for many, maybe even your dad.
All the best!
Hmmm, my doctorate isn't in medicine (heh heh), however: live life in continous pain... or accept a slight risk of increased chance of heart attack?
I know what my choice would be, and it isn't the former. Or become long-term opiate user; studies have shown there is little overall risk with long-term moderate dose opiates, and the people taking it are perfectly functional (i.e., not off in lala-land).
Unfortunately many Americans do not realize (with their instant-gratification minds) that their is virtue in suffering.
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