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Painkillers May Have a Side Effect That No One Expected

By Leah Groth ; Updated February 22, 2018

Those over-the-counter painkillers you’re taking for headaches, menstrual cramps, back pain and other aches may be numbing more than just the physical pain. According to new research, women who took acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) reported less sensitivity to emotional pain too.

A new study published in the journal Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences reviewed findings from different studies conducted around the common painkillers and how they impacted women and men emotionally.

One of the studies analyzed as part of the review concluded that women who took ibuprofen claimed to have less hurt feelings from emotionally painful experiences (such as feeling excluded or betrayed by others). However, the pill had the opposite effect on men: They actually reported being more sensitive to these scenarios. (As to why the sexes reacted differently to the same medication, researchers didn’t offer any explanation.)

Other experiments maintained that these types of pills may also inhibit a person’s — male or female — ability to empathize with pain in others. One found that those who took acetaminophen were less emotionally bothered when reading about someone suffering physical or emotional pain — and basically felt less regard for them — compared to others not using the drug. People also reported being less attached to their possessions and more likely to make errors of omission during a task.

So, yeah, popping Tylenol and Advil could have an effect on your emotions. Before you get too excited about the prospect of quashing your heartache with pain pills, take note that researchers have some serious concerns.

“In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming,” the University of California, Santa Barbara study group wrote. “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 authors do suggest that further research is needed before more regulations are needed or 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,” they continued.

While the idea of taking loads of Tylenol to deal with your breakup may sound nice, you might also want to think about the other health ramifications of taking too many of these over-the-counter drugs. Ibuprofen has been linked to blood clotting and stomach ulcers as well as severe cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and strokes, while acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure. Yikes!

Our advice: It is always best to deal with your emotions instead of popping a pill, and always discuss your situation with a doctor before turning to over-the-counter medications to treat anything.

Read more: Sleep and Coffee Work Better Than Morphine When You’re in Pain

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