Provocative new research suggests over-the-counter pain medicine such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen may influence how people process information, experience hurt feelings, and react to emotionally evocative images.
University of California, Santa Barbara researchers Kyle Ratner, Amanda R. Kaczmarek, and Youngki Hong reviewed published literature suggesting that over-the-counter pain medicine do more than just relieve pain.
Their findings appear in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
The literature review suggests over-the-counter pain medicine may influence individuals’:
- Sensitivity to emotionally painful experiences: Compared to those who took placebos, women who took a dose of ibuprofen reported less hurt feelings from emotionally painful experiences, such as being excluded from a game or writing about a time when they were betrayed. Men showed the opposite pattern.
- Ability to empathize with the pain of others: Compared to those taking placebos, individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen were less emotionally distressed while reading about a person experiencing physical or emotional pain and felt less regard for the person.
- Ability to process information: Compared to those who took placebos, individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen made more errors of omission in a game where they were asked, at various times, either to perform or to not perform a task.
- Reactions to emotional objects: Individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen rated pleasant and unpleasant photographs less extremely than those who took placebos.
- Discomfort from parting with possessions: When asked to set a selling price on an object they owned, individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen set prices that were cheaper than the prices set by individuals who took placebos.
If additional studies confirm the findings, regulatory officials would have to assess potential public health risks and benefits. “In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming,” say the researchers.
“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.”
Researchers explain that while the medicine(s) could have new potential for helping people deal with hurt feelings, more studies are needed to examine if the medications are truly effective for mental health.
Moreover, studies are needed to determine if the medications could have negative effects for people who take the meds with other pharmaceuticals or among people who are depressed and have difficulty feeling pleasure.