I’ve always been wary of pain medications like Ibuprofen and Tylenol. Why? Well, as a kid, I wanted to be strong and beat my stomachaches and headaches on my own. I didn’t need a pesky, little pill! Then, as I got a little older, I grew suspicious of its effects. Sure, it might relieve me of my back pain (thank you, scoliosis), but what else is it doing to my body? I wondered. Time and time again, my parents assured me that taking the medicine was safe… yet I continued to despise the idea of swallowing a pill, which had such a profound effect on my body.
While my suspicions may have been unjustified at the time, new research shows that they weren’t completely unwarranted. This research says that over-the-counter pain meds like Ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol) may influence how we process information, experience hurt feelings, and react to emotionally evocative pictures. An article published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences—a journal published in partnership with SAGE Publishing—analyzes these findings.
The authors of the article, Ratner et al., reviewed a plethora of research and made several significant observations. Among them: over-the-counter pain medication may affect our emotions, in a few different ways. First, the researchers found that women who took ibuprofen reported less hurt feelings from emotionally painful experiences, as compared to women who took placebos, while men showed the opposite pattern. And in another experiment, individuals who took acetaminophen (as opposed to placebos) were less emotionally distressed while reading about someone experiencing physical or emotional pain.
Furthermore, the researchers found that over-the-counter pain medications may influence our reactions to emotional objects. They observed that individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen rated pleasant and unpleasant photographs less extremely than those who took placebos. Additionally, individuals who took said dose of acetaminophen felt less discomfort from parting with beloved possessions: when asked to set a selling price on a belonging, they set cheaper prices than those set by individuals who took placebos.
As explained above, over-the-counter pain medication may have a significant impact on our emotions and how we process them—but that’s not the only effect. It may also inhibit our ability to process information, according to the researchers. They observed that individuals who took acetaminophen made more mistakes in a game where they were asked to perform or not to perform a task.
Ratner et al. describe these findings as alarming. “Consumers assume that when they take an over-the-counter pain medication, it will relieve their physical symptoms, but they do not anticipate broader psychological effects,” they explain. However, there may be an upside to these effects: over-the-counter medications may have the potential to help people deal with emotional pain, in addition to physical pain.
The authors recognize the need for more research to better understand how over-the-counter medications may help individuals deal with hurt feelings, as well as how it might produce negative effects for people taking other medications such as antidepressants. They also understand that further studies need be completed before policymakers introduce new policies and regulations; however, they recommend that they begin to think about the potential risks associated with these findings.
Sage. (2018, February 6). Can over-the-counter pain meds influence thoughts and emotions? [Press Release]. Retrieved on February 12, 2018 from https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/painmeds