Heartburn Drugs Cause Kidney Failure? What You Need To Know

Do heartburn drugs cause kidney failure? It’s a question that’s being asked with increasing concern in response to recently published research on heartburn medication — and its alleged connection to severe kidney problems.

CNN quotes a study released Thursday in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Meanwhile, NPR referenced research published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The two studies focus on proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are commonly used to treat symptoms such as “regular heartburn, ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease or acid reflux.”

The research published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology examined data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Study authors looked at a group of 173,321 people who used PPIs and a group of 20,270 people who took a PPI alternative known as “histamine H2 receptor blockers.”

“The authors, who work at Washington University in St. Louis and at the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, analyzed data from these patients five years later.

“They found that a large percentage of those patients who were taking PPIs were now having more kidney problems than those patients who took the alternative histamine H2 receptor blockers.”

This finding echoed a study led by epidemiologist Morgan Grams, whose team of researchers wanted to examine “whether PPIs might increase the risk for chronic kidney disease.” They determined that prolonged use of these heartburn drugs did seem to demonstrate links to an overall increase in chronic kidney problems.

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The public tends to purchase PPIs under the names “Prevacid, Prilosec, Nexium, Protonix, Aciphex and others.” Multiple reports suggest that as many as 15 million Americans have subscriptions for heartburn medicine. “They’re very, very common medications,” says Morgan Grams.

The most important takeaway from these studies is that heartburn drugs are perhaps too commonly prescribed; both heartburn sufferers and their prescribing doctors must exercise caution going forward. According to CNN, heartburn drugs are very likely over-prescribed. It’s also possible that those living with chronic heartburn might be overly reliant on over-the-counter (OTC) brands.

Although study results will no doubt cause alarm, Dr. Kenneth R. DeVault, president of the American College of Gastroenterology and chair of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, tells CBS News the overall risk of kidney problems is actually rather low.

“Keep in mind that the study population was a veteran’s hospital, a relatively older population that had lots of other diseases. One would have to assume if you were the average healthy person taking a proton pump inhibitor for heartburn the odds would be even lower than the low odds in this study.”

DeVault did admit that the research shows that persons who don’t necessarily need these heartburn drugs should probably avoid taking them. In general, gastroenterologists tend to be wary about prescribing PPIs, as “they’ve been linked to other health problems, including bone fractures and an increased risk of infections like C. difficile.”

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What can you do if you have heartburn but are also afraid of relying too heavily on OTC or prescribed heartburn medication? Said DeVault, “Losing weight and avoiding eating high-fat foods and avoiding eating late at night can be very helpful. If you can, elevating the head of your bed on six to eight-inch blocks will really help a great deal.” Other suggestions include not smoking and reducing alcohol consumption.

Alicia Dunn, a spokesperson for AstraZeneca (which sells the heartburn drug Nexium), responded to the study results by stating that AstraZeneca considers patient safety “an important priority.”

“We believe all of our PPI medicines [are] generally safe and effective when used in accordance with the label,” said Dunn.

Do you think heartburn drugs are safe if used as directed or that more restrictions should apply? Please share your thoughts and concerns in the comment section below.

[Photo courtesy of Rennet Stowe via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY-2.0 ]