Do OTC Pain Relievers Dull Your Emotions?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen and other over-the-counter pain relievers may do more than just dull your physical pain. They could also dull your emotional and cognitive senses, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara reviewed a small body of clinical studies that suggest OTC pain medications have an overlapping effect on us, both physically and emotionally.

One study, for example, found that acetaminophen makes people feel less empathy for others.

Research also found that women who took ibuprofen reported less social anxiety and hurt feelings after being excluded from a game or when writing about a time when they felt betrayed.

Yet another study found that acetaminophen lessens the discomfort of parting with a prized possession. When asked to set a selling price on an object they owned, individuals who took acetaminophen set prices that were cheaper than the prices set by individuals who took placebos.

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"In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming," wrote lead author Kyle Ratner, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara. "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.

“Are more regulations needed? Should warnings be expanded on drug labels? At this point, drawing strong conclusions from the existing studies would be premature. Nonetheless, policymakers might start thinking about potential public health risks and benefits.”

Ratner and his colleagues say one place to start is to further study the effects of OTC analgesics on pregnant women. Recent research has found higher rates of autism and attention deficit disorder (ADHD) in young children whose mothers used acetaminophen while pregnant.

Acetaminophen -- also known as paracetamol – is the world’s most widely used over-the-counter pain reliever. It is the active ingredient in Tylenol, Excedrin, and hundreds of other pain medications. Ibuprofen is also widely used and can be found in brand name products such as Motrin and Advil.   

“Found in medicine cabinets across the world and used multiple times per week by people of all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds, these drugs are woven into modern life. Policymakers should take note of existing findings but not rush to judgment,” said Ratner.

The study is published online in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.