Published On: Wed, May 11th, 2016

When you take acetaminophen, you don’t feel others’ pain as much

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When you take acetaminophen to reduce your pain, you may also be decreasing your empathy for both the physical and social aches that other people experience, a new study suggests.

Researchers at The Ohio State University found, for example, that when participants who took acetaminophen learned about the misfortunes of others, they thought these individuals experienced less pain and suffering, when compared to those who took no painkiller.

“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen, ” said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study .

“Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”
Acetaminophen – the main ingredient in the painkiller Tylenol – is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group.

Each week about 23 percent of American adults (about 52 million people) use a medicine containing acetaminophen, the CHPA reports.

In an earlier study, Way and other colleagues found that acetaminophen also blunts positive emotions like joy.

Taken together, the two studies suggest there’s a lot we need to learn about one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs in the United States.

“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning, ” said Way, the senior author of the study.

“Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

The researchers conducted two experiments, the first involving 80 college students. At the beginning, half the students drank a liquid containing 1, 000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other half drank a placebo solution that contained no drug. The students didn’t know which group they were in.

Results showed that people who took acetaminophen rated the pain and hurt feelings of the excluded student as being not as severe as did the participants who took the placebo.

“In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience, ” Way said.

“Still, those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.”

While these results had not been seen before, they make sense in the light of previous research, Way said.

A 2004 study scanned the brains of people as they were experiencing pain and while they were imagining other people feeling the same pain. Those results showed that the same part of the brain was activated in both cases.

“In light of those results, it is understandable why using Tylenol to reduce your pain may also reduce your ability to feel other people’s pain as well, ” he said.

The researchers are continuing to study how acetaminophen may affect people’s emotions and behavior, Way said. They are also beginning to study another common pain reliever – ibuprofen – to see if it has similar results.

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