Doctor, Does This Drug Have Any Side Effects?

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Hello again. It’s Dr. Louella, just winding up my weekend here. I’m a bit tired but still very much excited that I got some time to do this post.

You see, yesterday I was musing on a young patient I had seen earlier this week. He had asked me one of the most frequent questions I get from patients.

But let me give you the context of this case first. It was another busy chronic disease clinic. The ‘patient care attendant’ told me about a walk-in patient to be seen who had chest pain.

I asked for his age. He was 22 years old. Cool. I ordered an ECG ( EKG, electrocardiograph; or ‘heart tracing’) and said that I would see him later.

A few patients later they brought a perfect ECG for me in ‘normal sinus rhythm’ with no abnormalities. Good. No serious heart problem. I saw him a few patients after that.

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He was a healthy looking young male. It was easy to make the diagnosis. He told me he had central chest pain. I asked him why (because most of the times patient already know the cause). He confessed to having lifted some heavy boxes of meat the day before.

I did a brief examination of the heart, lungs and chest wall. He had a muscular strain. Case closed.

But not quite. When I attempted to prescribe an analgaesic (pain killer) for him I was confronted with the oh too familiar question…

“Does this drug have any side effects, doc?”

I think this is where public education should step in because I am asked this question repeatedly nowadays. People need to understand these simple concepts so they can make informed choices.

I start by replying, ‘Of course. All tablets have side effects.  If you look in my book right here (the British National Formulary on my desk), each drug has a long list of side effects.

And there is no way for anyone to remember all of them. That’s why I walk with my book. Doctors usually know the most common and/or most serious effects.

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I like to refer to them as potential or possible side effects because it does not mean that you are going to get them.

Research is done so they know how many people suffer with each side effect of a drug and it is usually a very small number, like 5% or 0.5%. If many people are affected they wouldn’t allow the drug to be sold.

Now for the most, you may get one side effect of a drug. Or if you are really ‘bad lucky’ (Trinidadian for ‘unfortunate’) you may get two.

No one can predict whether you will get a side effect. It is only if  you use the drug you will know the effect. If something happens we  will deal with it. But we would not want to lose the benefit of this drug for no reason.’

Now there are some conditions where I can tell patients that using a medication is optional, such as for pain, itch or stomach discomfort but for diseases such as diabetes and hypertension which can ravage their lives, I urge them to take their pills everyday.

Many of our patients have heard from friends and family that these medication damage their kidneys and liver. They often do not take them as a result, or take them intermittently to mitigate these supposed effects.

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I stress to them that chronic diseases (especially diabetes and hypertension)  are the ones that have been proven to damage their organs. The pills are given to them to protect them.

Yes, sometimes the pills themselves can damage organs but this is rare compared to diabetes and hypertension which ALWAYS impair kidneys, whether to a minor or great extent.

People get complications and die of chronic diseases all the time. I don’t really hear of people dying from their medication. But I know it probably happens.

Our patients are also exposed to television advertisements where side effects of drugs are rattled off. But without the explanation I gave above we can see this turning people further away from conventional medicine if they believe that all these negative effects would happen to them.

The young man I saw that day accepted my prescription in the end. He understood that the likelihood of him getting a side effect of the drug was slim and we would deal with that if and when it occurs.

I also explained to him that although he was young and fit there was no reason to strain his body beyond its capacity as he had done recently because he would suffer for it. Damaged muscles often take several months to heal.

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Unlike the young man, some patients turn to alternative medicines. They are free to do so but I let them know my position on it.

I let them know that the medicines we use originally came from plants but they have been purified and from them synthetic ones were made.

All our drugs are extensively researched and the effects documented. Yet allopathic medicine is still far from perfect.

Many herbal products are not purified and contain several chemical compounds with varying effects. There is very little in the way of formal study of these chemicals.

Claims are based on anecdotal accounts (of people’s personal experiences) rather than on large controlled studies. Anyone can sell anything and claim anything about them because there is no regulation of these products. But not everything ‘natural’ is safe.

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But the thing is, it’s not that herbal products don’t have side effects. It’s just that the people distributing them don’t know, so everyone pretends like they don’t. And when people experience them, does anyone sue the herbalist? No! But sue your doctor, because he is rich!

Never mind that, if you see Dr. Louella dying, bring me the tablet, bring me the ‘erb, the weed, bring anything!!!

But while I’m living and can make a rationale choice, bring me the evidence to support your medicine!

Dr. Louella saying, do enjoy your day! Laugh! Sing! Dance! … I do!!!

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Hypertension 10 – Summary

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Hi folks! It’s Dr. Louella and we’ve reached the grand finale of our discussions on hypertension. Yeeaaah!!!!

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This one you should definitely keep for your records because I’ll be reiterating and reminding you of all the important points, having already explained the mechanics of this disorder in detail.

Firstly blood pressure is derived from the pumping action of the heart as it forces blood into large blood vessels. This causes the blood to circulate around our bodies. The force with which  the blood flows is called the blood pressure.

Just as we are unable to feel the blood circulating around our bodies, we are unable to feel our blood pressure. It is a common myth in Trinidad and Tobago that high blood pressure causes neck pain.

95% of high blood pressure cases are caused by the kidneys by an unknown mechanism. The other 5% have an identifiable cause, usually in younger individuals.

Certain emotional states, such as anger, pain and anxiety, as well as increased physical activity, can cause a temporary rise in blood pressure. This is not hypertension, which is a chronic condition. For this reason, not just one, but a few blood pressure readings need to be taken before a person is diagnosed as hypertensive.

Factors which predispose to the disease include a family history of hypertension, increasing age and certain ethnicities such as Afro-American or Afro-Caribbean.

Dietary associations of hypertension include a high sodium intake (salt, not fresh seasonings), low potassium intake, heavy consumption of alcohol and obesity. Increased oats and fruits in the diet help to reduce blood pressure. Physical inactivity is also associated with a higher blood pressure.

General guidelines for hypertension are that a reading of 120/80 or less is normal and ideal; a target of less than 140/90 is used for those on treatment; less than 150/90 is now used for those over 60 and 130/80 or less for those with certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Complications of hypertension are the dreaded stroke, heart failure, heart attack, kidney failure, aortic aneurysm and eye disease. Hypertension damages the inner lining of blood vessels allowing cholesterol to enter the wall and form a plaque that partially blocks blood flow.

If it a blood clot forms at the site it seals up the blockage long enough for no blood to flow and permanently damage brain or heart cells. The person then gets a stroke or heart attack.

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The DASH diet has been shown to help lower blood pressure. It includes less salt, alcohol, red meat, fat and sweets including sweetened drinks.

But it also includes more fruits, vegetables and high fibre foods (whole grain products such as whole wheat/meal bread, bran, oats, as well as more peas, beans and nuts).

Weight loss for the overweight and obese is important in controlling hypertension. This can be achieved by a combination of dietary control and exercise. To lose weight you need to eat less and have a lower calorie intake but frequent little meals, and not starvation, is the key.

Exercise is beneficial in lowering blood pressure on its own, even in those of normal weight. Aerobic exercise can take many forms including running, skipping and dancing.

Some people can have their hypertension controlled through diet and exercise alone but most will still need the assistance of medication. Medication is varied but it must be stressed that it needs to be taken everyday, as prescribed by the doctor, unless the person is experiencing ill effects, which he must inform his doctor about.

So there! We’re done. That’s the end of hypertension. I’ve taught you almost everything I know. Feel free if you have questions or comments. See you next week. Dr. Louella is out!!!

Hypertension 9 – Treatment and Compliance

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Hi everyone! I’m on time today. This is Dr. Louella checking in from the office. This ought to be our final post on hypertension but I feel the need to give a summary afterwards to draw all the essential points together. Let us finish up on treatment.

So, let’s say diet and exercise (as we discussed previously), fail. You ask what I mean by fail… well you just don’t do them or you make a half-hearted attempt to do so. Then they will fail. Or, better yet, say you do try, and get some results but not sufficient for your blood pressure to be called normal, what do we do?

It is obvious we turn to medication at this point. Antihypertensive medication is used to control but not to cure hypertension or high blood pressure. Some people’s blood pressures are so high that we have to put them on medication from the start, but this should be done in conjunction with diet and exercise.

Now I don’t need to go too much into the actual medications. There are many classes of antihypertensive drugs and several drugs in each class. One may work a bit better in an individual than another but none is clearly superior.

I do have a lot to say on “The Patient and the Taking of Antihypertensives” though. Oh my goodness! I have only dealt with patients from Trinidad but I am sure there are patients all over who behave similarly.

Many patients aren’t convinced of the diagnosis of hypertension. They say “so they say” but don’t own it for themselves. They are in denial. Others treat it like a minor irritation or joke. But I am usually quickly able to convince them of the diagnosis by giving them the normal range and showing where a number of their blood pressures, as recorded in the patient notes, are beyond that. Remember, if they were diagnosed based on one reading, they have a right to be skeptical.

I show them that antihypertensives work on everyone. If they do not have hypertension their blood pressures would run low if they took medication. Are their blood pressures running low? Or are they being maintained just normal, high normal or even too high? If your blood pressure is normal whilst on an antihypertensive, you need to continue on that treatment, or else it will go high.

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It is difficult to get hypertensive patients to take their medication because they don’t feel sick. This often leads them to rush to take a pill when they do feel something like a headache or neck pain. Recall that hypertension has no symptoms. I tell them if you are waiting to feel something, that’s when complications have already set in, and it will be too late.

A lot of our patient population think a water pill is to help them pass water and improve functioning of their kidneys, so they don’t take it because they pass water just fine. They are oblivious to the fact that it is a pill for treating hypertension, so I make this clear to them.

Many of them have their own regimen for taking medicines: once a day instead of twice, every other day, twice or three times a week, whenever they remember or whenever the blood pressure is high. No wonder the pills don’t work!!! I always ask why? What is your reasoning for this?

I will admit, years ago when I first discovered this deviant behavior I was shocked. I found out that we doctors increased the dosages of patient medication when needed but the patients themselves didn’t. So the notes may be saying as many as four tablets a day when the patient still routinely took one. My most gruesome discovery was bags and bags half-filled with medication at the homes of the elderly we visited in Cedros. I was upset and thought I was fighting a losing battle.

But I’m older and wiser now. I understand many of the reasons they don’t take their medicines as prescribed. I ask them point blank about it and spend some time on the topic. But even after explaining there is no guarantee they will follow comply. Most of our patients are unaware of the names of their medication and this makes it more difficult.

I explain to those that take their meds only when blood pressure is high is that they are doing more damage by allowing their pressures to go high and then taking a pill, as opposed to having it controlled at all times. If your blood pressure is good today it may be the pill you took yesterday. If you miss the pill today it will be high tomorrow or the next day. To decrease risk of complications blood pressure needs to be controlled at all times

Many patients are afraid of side effects. I try to explain that these side effects are only potential and nothing happens to most people. There is no automatic damage by the medication. And furthermore, the damage they will get from hypertension is more sure and worse than what the tabs will do.

For those who have decreased the dosages due to convenience, I explain to them that the drug only is effective in their system for a certain length of time and they need to take it as prescribed for it to work properly. It comes as though you’re wasting your time because the drug can’t work like that.

A few of them cannot read so I emphasise to them that I am changing the dose and ask them to refer to a relative or neighbor to read it for them. Sometimes for the elderly or mentally challenged I ask for them to bring a relative. I explain to that person and charge them with the responsibility.

That’s it folks!!! We just completed the series on hypertension. Only the summary is left. Thereafter I’ll be starting a new topic. Now if I left out anything or you don’t understand something, feel free to comment before we move on. I enjoyed this because it was like a refresher for me and as you can tell, I love to share my patient experiences. Enjoy the rest of the weekend and the incoming week!