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Easily available over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help ease aches and pains, but might temporarily alter emotions such as empathy, or even a person’s reasoning skills, according to the finding from a new review of recently published studies by the University of California.

Although these painkillers ease heartache as well as headaches,the study showed that popular pain medications may influence how people process information and experience hurt feelings.

“In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming,” said a team led by Kyle Ratner, a psychology and brain science researcher at the University of California, 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,” the study group said.

Researchers who reviewed previous studies found over-the-counter pain medicine may influence sensitivity to emotionally painful experiences.

They discovered that, 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.

One clinical psychiatrist who reviewed the findings said they aren’t farfetched.

“Intuitively, this makes sense, as physical and emotional senses can overlap in the brain,” said Dr Alan Manevitz of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“While physical pain can be locally ‘felt’ at the site of a physical injury, the main source and registration of physical pain is in the brain,” he explained.

“The same is true of hurtful, emotional and painful feelings. We say our ‘heart is breaking,’ but emotions are felt in the brain.”

The experiments suggest that a regular dose of the pills might affect a person’s sensitivity to painful emotional experiences. For example, in one study, women who took ibuprofen reported less hurt feelings from emotionally painful experiences, such as being excluded by others or writing about being betrayed.

However, men had the opposite pattern — they became more sensitive to these types of scenarios if they had just taken the painkiller.

The researchers also found the pills influence the ability to empathise with the pain of others.

Ratner’s team suggested that these medicines might also reduce a person’s ability to empathize with the pain of others.

For example, one experiment found that people who took acetaminophen were less emotionally distressed while reading about a person suffering physical or emotional pain and felt less regard for the person, compared with people who did not take acetaminophen.

The review was published online in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

With Agency Inputs

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