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Fen Phen diet pills have been linked to Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH), formerly known as Primary Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH).

The Story of Fen Phen’s Rise and Fall

The diet pill craze hit the U.S. in the mid-1990s, when it was estimated that one out of three adults were obese. Millions of people were searching for a quick and effective way to lose weight without diet and exercise. The diet pill Isomeride was already available in Europe. Isomeride contained fenfluramine, an “anoretic” drug that helped people feel satiated by making the brain release serotonin, a chemical that makes people feel good. Unfortunately, too much serotonin in the body can cause a lot of problems, including problems with memory loss and altered moods. Another medication, Pondimin, also contained fenfluramine. Pondimin and Isomeride never became very popular, because they made people feel drowsy and tired.

When a doctor proposed combining fenfluramine with another drug, called phentermine, a mild stimulant, the diet drug Fen Phen was born. Doctors began prescribing it for weight loss, which was an “off label” use, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not yet approved Fen Phen for weight loss.

Another diet drug also rose to popularity around this time: Redux. This diet pill contained a derivative of fenfluramine, called dexfenfluramine. While the drug-company producing Redux was seeking FDA approval in the U.S., a major study came out in Europe that linked Redux, Fen Phen, and other fenfluramine medications to Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH) — a serious disorder that causes permanent damage to the heart, lungs, and circulatory system, and can lead to death.

Despite the grim study, the drug-makers began pushing Redux and Fen Phen onto the U.S. market. In 1996, the FDA approved Redux, and the diet craze hit the U.S. in full force. With a $52 million ad campaign promoting Redux and Fen Phen as a quick, easy way to lose weight, sales hit $300 million and more than 18 million prescriptions were filled.

Very soon, however, doctors and the FDA began seeing more and more cases of serious heart valve injury and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH). The people coming in with these injuries were all taking Fen Phen, Redux, Pondimin, or other fenfluramine diet pills.

A doctor working at the Mayo Clinic published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine detailing her treatment of 25 people with heart valve damage caused by fenfluramine. The FDA began receiving reports from doctors that the pills were causing serious, life-threatening heart damage, including people who had only taken diet pills for a few weeks.

On September 15, 1997, the FDA banned the sale, manufacturing, and use of Fen Phen, Redux, Pondimin, and other diet medications in the United States for safety reasons. Even so, it is possible that millions of people suffered heart damage and other injury caused by the pills.

What is Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)?

Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH) is a disorder that affects the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. People with PAH often suffer weakness, fatigue, chest pain, and light-headedness during activities. In severe cases, symptoms occur even when the person is sitting.

The disorder occurs when there is damage to the vessels between the heart and lungs. Fenfluramine, Fen Phen, Redux, and Pondimin damage these vessels, causing them to narrow. Like pinching the flow of water in a hose, this can cause major problems for a person’s heart and lungs. The heart must work extra hard to force blood into the lungs, the blood pressure in the lungs increases, which lowers the amount of blood that flows into the lungs. Over time, this causes serious, life-threatening problems.

The first symptoms of Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension usually include:

  • Shortness of breath or light-headedness during activity, or during rest
  • Fast heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Bluish color in the nails, skin, or lips (called “cyanosis”)
  • Ankle and leg swelling

Over time, far more serious problems can emerge. Because the heart is working so much harder than usual to force blood into the lungs, the heart muscle may thicken, enlarge, and become stiffer than usual. A stiff heart muscle can fail. Heart failure is a serious side effect of using Fen Phen and other diet pills containing fenfluramine.

Injuries Linked to Fen Phen

  • Primary Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH)
  • Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)
  • Heart valve damage
  • Leaky heart valve
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart murmur
  • Damage to blood vessels in the lungs
  • Heart failure
  • Death
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