Calcium Channel Blockers
Definition, Purpose, Precautions, Description, Risks, Normal results
Calcium channel blockers are medicines that slow the movement of calcium into the cells of the heart and blood vessels. This, in turn, relaxes blood vessels, increases the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, and reduces the heart's workload.
Calcium channel blockers are used to treat high blood pressure, to correct abnormal heart rhythms, and to relieve the type of chest pain called angina pectoris. Physicians also prescribe calcium channel blockers to treat panic attacks and bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) and to prevent migraine headache.
Seeing a physician regularly while taking calcium channel blockers is important. The physician will check to make certain the medicine is working as it should and will watch for unwanted side effects. People who have high blood pressure often feel perfectly fine. However, they should continue to see their prescribing physician even when they feel well so that he can keep a close watch on their condition. They should also continue to take their medicine even when they feel fine.
Calcium channel blockers will not cure high blood pressure, but will help to control the condition. To avoid the serious health problems associated with high blood pressure, patients may have to take this type of medication for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, the blockers alone may not be enough. People with high blood pressure may also need to avoid certain foods and keep their weight under control. The health care professional who is treating the condition can offer advice as to what measures may be necessary. Patients being treated for high blood pressure should not change their diets without consulting their physicians.
Anyone taking calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure should not take any other prescription or over-the-counter medication without first checking with the prescribing physician, as some of these drugs may increase blood pressure.
Some people feel drowsy or less alert than usual when taking calcium channel blockers. Anyone who takes these drugs should not drive, use machines, or do anything else that might be dangerous until they have found out how the drugs affect them.
People who normally have chest pain when they exercise or exert themselves may not have the pain when they are taking calcium channel blockers. This could lead them to be more active than they should be. Anyone taking calcium channel blockers should therefore consult with the prescribing physician concerning how much exercise and activity may be considered safe.
Some people get headaches that last for a short time after taking a dose of this medication. This problem usually goes away during the course of treatment. If it does not, or if the headaches are severe, the prescribing physician should be informed.
Patients taking certain calcium channel blockers may need to check their pulse regularly, as the drugs may slow the pulse too much. If the pulse is too slow, circulation problems may result. The prescribing physician can show patients the correct way to check their pulse.
This type of medication may cause the gums to swell, bleed, or become tender. If this problem occurs, a medical physician or dentist should be consulted. To help prevent the problem, care should be taken when brushing and flossing the teeth. Regular dental check-ups and cleanings are also recommended.
Older people may be unusually sensitive to the effects of calcium channel blockers. This may increase the chance of side effects.
People with certain medical conditions or who are taking certain other medicines may develop problems if they also take calcium channel blockers. Before taking these drugs, the prescribing physician should be informed about any of these conditions:
ALLERGIES. Anyone who has had a previous unusual reaction to any calcium channel blocker should let his or her physician know before taking the drugs again. The physician should also be notified about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.
PREGNANCY. The effects of taking calcium channel blockers during pregnancy have not been studied in humans. However, in studies of laboratory animals, large doses of these drugs have been reported to cause birth defects, stillbirth, poor bone growth, and other problems when taken during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant should check with their physicians before using these drugs.
BREASTFEEDING. Some calcium channel blockers pass into breast milk, but there have been no reports of problems in nursing babies whose mothers were taking this type of medication. However, women who need to take this medicine and want to breastfeed their babies should check with their physicians.
OTHER MEDICAL CONDITIONS. Calcium channel blockers may worsen heart or blood vessel disorders.
The effects of calcium channel blockers may be greater in people with kidney or liver disease, as their bodies are slower to clear the drug from their systems.
Certain calcium channel blockers may also cause problems in people with a history of heart rhythm problems or with depression, Parkinson's disease, or other types of parkinsonism.
USE OF CERTAIN MEDICINES. Taking calcium channel blockers with certain other drugs may affect the way the drugs work or may increase the chance of side effects.
As with most medications, certain side effects are possible and some interactions with other substances may occur.
Side effects are not common with this medicine, but some may occur. Minor discomforts, such as dizziness, lightheadedness, flushing, headache, and nausea, usually go away as the body adjusts to the drug and do not require medical treatment unless they persist or they are bothersome.
If any of the following side effects occur, the prescribing physician should be notified as soon as possible:
- breathing problems, coughing or wheezing
- irregular, fast, or pounding heartbeat
- slow heartbeat (less than 50 beats per minute)
- skin rash
- swollen ankles, feet, or lower legs
Other side effects may occur. Anyone who has unusual symptoms after taking calcium blockers should contact the prescribing physician.
Calcium channel blockers may interact with a number of other medications. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change or the risk of side effects may increase. Anyone who takes calcium channel blockers should not take any other prescription or non-prescription (over-the-counter) medicines without first checking with the prescribing physician. Substances that may interact with calcium channel blockers include:
- Diuretics (water pills). This type of medicine may cause low levels of potassium in the body, which may increase the chance of unwanted effects from some calcium channel blockers.
- Beta-blockers, such as atenolol (Tenormin), propranolol (Inderal), and metoprolol (Lopressor), used to treat high blood pressure, angina, and other conditions. Also, eye drop forms of beta blockers, such as timolol (Timoptic), used to treat glaucoma. Taking any of these drugs with calcium channel blockers may increase the effects of both types of medicine and may cause problems if either drug is stopped suddenly.
- Digitalis heart medicines. Taking these medicines with calcium channel blockers may increase the action of the heart medication.
- Medicines used to correct irregular heart rhythms, such as quinidine (Quinidex), disopyramide (Norpace), and procainamide (Procan, Pronestyl). The effects of these drugs may increase if used with calcium channel blockers.
- Anti-seizure medications such as carbamazepine (Tegretol). Calcium channel drugs may increase the effects of these medicines.
- Cyclosporine (Sandimmune), a medicine that suppresses the immune system. Effects may increase if this drug is taken with calcium channel blockers.
- Grapefruit juice may increase the effects of some calcium channel blockers.
The above list does not include every drug that may interact with calcium channel blockers. The prescribing physician or pharmacist will advise as to whether combining calcium channel blockers with any other prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medication is appropriate or not.
Calcium channel blockers are available only with a physician's prescription and are sold in tablet, capsule, and injectable forms. Some commonly used calcium channel blockers include amlopidine (Norvasc), diltiazem (Cardizem), isradipine (DynaCirc), nifedipine (Adalat, Procardia), nicardipine (Cardene), and vera-pamil (Calan, Isoptin, Verelan).
The recommended dosage depends on the type, strength, and form of calcium channel blocker and the condition for which it is prescribed. Correct dosage is determined by the prescribing physician and further information can be obtained from the pharmacist.
Calcium channel blockers should be taken as directed. Larger or more frequent doses should not be taken, nor should doses be missed. This medicine may take several weeks to noticeably lower blood pressure. The patient taking calcium channel blockers should keep taking the medicine, to give it time to work. Once it begins to work and symptoms improve, it should continue to be taken as prescribed.
This medicine should not be discontinued without checking with the prescribing physician. Some conditions may worsen when patients stop taking calcium channel blockers abruptly. The prescribing physician will advise as to how to gradually taper down before stopping the medication completely.
A report from the European Cardiology Society in 2000 found that patients taking certain calcium channel blockers had a 27% greater risk of heart attack, and a 26% greater risk of heart failure than patients taking other high blood pressure medicines. However, there are many patients affected by conditions that still make calcium channel blockers the best choice for them. The patient should discuss this issue with the prescribing physician.
The expected result of taking a calcium channel blocker is to either correct abnormal heart rhythms, return blood pressure to normal, or relieve chest pain.
Beers, Mark H. and Robert Berkow, eds. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 17th ed. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck and Company, Inc., 1999.
Zoler, Mitchel L."Drug Update: Calcium Channel Blockers For Hypertension." Family Practice News (April 1, 2000): 53.
"The Pressure's On: A Hypertension Drug Taken by 28 Million People is Under Scrutiny. What Are the Other Options? (Calcium Channel Blockers)." Time (September 11,2000): 126.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov>.
Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, R.N.
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