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Are Over-the-Counter Painkillers Numbing Your Emotions?

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We usually think of over-the-counter pain medications as one of the more convenient ways to nip headaches, muscle cramps, and other unpleasant aches in the bud so that we can get on with our busy lives. Occasionally we hear about (or experience) physical side effects while on these meds, but emotional side effects rarely — if ever — cross our minds. But that might be something we should consider the next time we reach for the pill bottle, according to new research.

In a February 2018 article published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a team of researchers reviewed multiple studies on non-prescription painkillers and found a shocking common thread: Over-the-counter meds, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, numbed a lot more than just the studies' participants' pain. The researchers found that non-prescription pain medications might actually influence how people process information, experience hurt feelings, and even react to emotional images.

But the emotional effects of some pain meds appeared to differ across genders: Women who took ibuprofen reported having less hurt feelings from "emotionally painful experiences" — such as writing about a time when they were betrayed — when compared to women who took placebos, but men actually had stronger hurt feelings after taking ibuprofen.

Acetaminophen, however, appeared to affect men and women in the same way: When participants read stories about a person experiencing physical or emotional pain, the patients who took acetaminophen were less empathetic and "felt less regard for the person" compared to patients who took placebos.

"In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming," the study authors wrote in a release. "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."

But before you empty out the medicine cabinet, keep in mind that these studies did not prove that the medications caused less extreme emotions in patients; rather, the studies noticed a connection between the meds and less extreme emotions in patients. The study authors also noted that further research is needed to pinpoint a cause-and-effect relationship, as well as figure out if over-the-counter pain medications have any negative side effects for people with depression when taken with other types of medication, or, on the flip side, if these medications could possibly be useful for helping people cope with emotional pain.

It'll certainly be fascinating to hear what they find out in the future! Have you ever had any strange emotional reactions after taking this kind of medicine?

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