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Calcium channel blockers: A closer look

You may think of calcium mainly as a mineral that helps build strong bones. Less well known is calcium’s role in regulating muscle contractions. The fact is, without calcium your heart would stop beating. But there are times when a heart could stand to beat less forcefully. Moderating the heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels can improve high blood pressure and relieve angina.

Drugs called calcium channel blockers achieve just that by slowing the flow of calcium into muscle cells. They also may be used to treat abnormal heart rhythms and congestive heart failure.

Although calcium channel blockers have been used for years, some recent studies have caused alarm by linking the drugs to an increased risk of heart attack, bleeding, cancer and even suicide. If you’re taking a calcium channel blocker, you may be concerned. Here’s what you should know:

  • The studies that called the medication’s safety into question simply compared people who were taking a calcium channel blocker to those taking another high blood pressure medication. Researchers didn’t examine why patients had been prescribed calcium channel blockers, nor did they establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the drugs and a high heart attack rate. For example, people in the calcium channel blocker group may have had more serious heart conditions in the first place. Or perhaps they failed to take their medications regularly.
  • The most troubling findings have been linked to nifedipine, a short-acting calcium channel blocker. But today, most doctors prescribe long-acting calcium channel blockers.
  • A controlled study of 9,500 patients found no link between calcium channel blockers and increased cancer risk.

If you’re taking a calcium channel blocker, that means your doctor believes it’s the safest, most effective treatment for you. And the risks of stopping treatment far outweigh any risk associated with continued usage. Discuss any concerns with your doctor.