Dr. Murray Feingold: Burning questions on stomach acid meds

Dr. Murray Feingold

If you are taking Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium or some other type of proton pump inhibitor, you are not alone.

It is estimated that 140 million prescriptions of these medications are filled each year. Approximately $13 billion is spent to buy them.

The purpose of these medications is to reduce the amount of acid produced by the stomach. This excessive acid is associated with a variety of disorders including GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcers and dyspepsia.

Side effects, especially when taken for a short period of time, are uncommon and may include headaches, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, abdominal pain and fatigue.

However, a recent article that discussed the use of these proton pump inhibitor drugs raised some concerns.

Although these medications are very effective in relieving the symptoms of increased acid in the stomach, the authors of the article believe that the majority of times they are prescribed and used inappropriately.

For example, they do not believe that these medications should be used to treat dyspepsia that is not associated with ulcers.

The researchers also found some interesting side effects they attributed to taking these medications.

They followed more than 160,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79 for eight years. The results of their study showed that there was an increased risk of developing wrist, forearm and spine fractures in the proton pump inhibitor group compared to those who did not take these medications.

There was also an increased rate of infections with the bacteria Clostridium difficile, which is the cause of severe gastrointestinal symptoms.

For many people, using drugs such as Prilosec and Nexium have been very beneficial in helping to relieve symptoms of so-called "acid indigestion."

However, if you have been taking these medications for some time, you should discuss with your doctor whether or not you really need to continue to take them. Perhaps consider discontinuing them to determine if the symptoms recur.

Before taking any medication you should always consider the benefits versus the risks. And remember, taking any drug is associated with a potential risk.

Massachusetts-based Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of the National Birth Defects Center, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.