A majority of Kenyans suffering from body aches or pains caused by various conditions usually rush for over-the-counter medicines in an attempt to alleviate the agony before seeking medical intervention from doctors.
But unknown by many people, some of these seemingly harmless drugs may be derailing their health by interfering with their mental and emotional wellbeing.
A new study published in the Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal warns that common over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen may influence how people process information, experience hurt feelings and react to emotionally evocative images.
Acetaminophen goes by various generic names such Panadol, Tylenol or Calpol while some of the common brand names for Ibuprofen include Brufen, Advil, Motrin and Nurofen.
The drugs are used to relieve pain from various conditions such as headache, dental pain, menstrual cramps and muscle aches or arthritis. They also reduce fever and alleviate common cold or flu symptoms.
The medicines work by blocking the body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. This helps to decrease swelling, pain, or fever.
Compared to individuals that were not given the drug, the researchers found that those who took acetaminophen were less likely to empathise with other people’s pain.
For instance, they were less emotionally distressed while reading about people experiencing physical or emotional pain.
This drug was also shown to influence people’s reactions to emotional images.
Indeed, Individuals who took a dose of acetaminophen rated pleasant and unpleasant photographs less extremely — meaning that the drug lessened the emotional impact of the images.
Moreover, partakers of the drug were found to exhibit discomfort from parting with possessions as opposed to other people.
Ibuprofen on the other hand was shown to impact people’s sensitivity to emotionally painful experiences in varied ways.
For example, women who took the medication reported less hurt feelings from emotionally painful experiences such as being excluded from a game or writing about a time when they were betrayed. However, men showed the opposite pattern.
To arrive at their conclusions on both painkillers, the scientists reviewed data from numerous research papers that have assessed the psychological effects of the drugs over the years.
Their aim was to bring attention to the problem and encourage research into possible solutions for this challenge as the medicines are extensively used by people world over.
“In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming. 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,” said Dr Kyle Ratner, lead author of the study from the University of California, in Santa Barbara.
While emphasising that further studies are necessary before new regulations or policies regarding the use of the drugs are put in place, he noted that policymakers should begin thinking about their prospective public health risks and ways of mitigating them.
The researchers stated that some effects of acetaminophen and ibuprofen – such as their ability to dull the intensity of emotional experience – show that the drugs could have new potential of helping people deal with hurt feelings.
However, they recommend further research to examine their efficacy (extent to which they can achieve the goal) and determine if the medicines would have negative effects for people that take them in combination with other drugs or those who are depressed and have difficulty feeling pleasure.
Dr Fred Siyoi, acting chief pharmacist and registrar of the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB), said that to avert negative impacts of non-prescription pain relief drugs, people should avoid misusing them or purchasing them unnecessarily.
“Prolonged use of these medicines isn’t recommended. Normally, you just need to take the drugs for a few days as per the doctor’s prescription or instructions provided by the manufacturer which usually comes with the drug. But most Kenyans rarely do that.”
“Just because they are painkillers that you can buy over the counter doesn’t mean they are harmless. If you don’t use them in the right way, then they can become poisonous.”
He noted that any pain in the body usually results from an inherent condition or illness affecting the body. For instance, malaria may cause headache while weak muscles can cause back pains.