There is a common painkiller that you probably have in your medicine cabinet. It’s one of the most widely used drug ingredients in Europe and the United States. It helps to dull mild to moderate pain and it is generally considered to be safe. It is often given to children, even infants. Unfortunately, recent research suggests that it is not just pain that it dulls – it may also lessen our emotions and our feelings of empathy.
Physical and psychological painkiller
Paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen, can be found in over 600 medicines. It is used to treat minor pain, cold and flu aches and even teething pain. Used with the correct dosage it is widely accepted to have few side-effects and it is considered one of the safest drugs around.
I will be using the names paracetamol and acetaminophen interchangeably in this article. Please note that both names refer to the same drug.
A study by the University of Kentucky found that it can treat more than physical pain. Psychologist C. Nathan DeWall and his research team wondered if it would also treat psychological pain. In total sixty-two volunteers participated in the study. Each evening they filled in a form to measure the level of social pain that they felt that day. To measure this they used the Hurt Feelings Scale, a widely used tool. People who were taking paracetamol reported that their feelings of hurt decreased over time. The people who were taking a dummy pill reported no such decline. Positive emotions remained the same in this study.
In a second experiment, 25 people took either paracetamol or a dummy pill for three weeks. Their brains were then scanned as they played a computer game designed to make people feel socially rejected (ouch). The brains of the people on the acetaminophen tablets showed much less activity in the areas that register social pain. In other words, the computer was mean and the brains said “meh”.
So it seemed that acetaminophen is a drug that could cure heart and headaches. The researchers did warn people that further research was needed and that long-term use of paracetamol could lead to liver damage. But, it’s not designed for long-term use so it seemed to be all good news.
Common painkiller – uncommon side-effects
Researchers in Ohio State University may have uncovered some negative mental side effects, however. In a study in 2015, they tested 82 volunteers, half of whom were given paracetamol, the other half got dummy pills. They were then shown a series of photographs that ranged from distressing pictures of malnourished kids to happy young children playing with cats. The participants were asked to rate how negative or positive each photo was.
“People who took acetaminophen didn’t feel the same highs or lows as did the people who took placebos.” – Baldwin Way, Ohio State University
They were then shown the photos again. This time they rated how each photo made them feel, on a scale of 0 (little or no emotion) to 10 (extreme emotion).
All of those on acetaminophen showed fewer extremes in their ratings. The negative photos were ranked less negatively and the positive photos less positively. Their emotional reactions were also muted compared to the control group.
“Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever.” – Geoffrey Durso, Ohio State University
Of course, it could be that the drug blunts people’s judgement of magnitude. Maybe it wasn’t emotions that was being dulled, maybe it was something to do with how people rated extremes. To test this they did a second study where 85 volunteers had to rate the positivity or negativity, the emotional response and the amount of blue in the photo. Again, those who took the drug judged the photos to be less extreme and less evoking of an emotional response. There was no difference in how people judged the range of blue.
So popping a pill for your headache could mean that you experience less joy. But it also means that you’ll probably experience less negative emotions too.
A follow-up study by Ohio State University found that the effects are not limited to emotional response. In the new study, 80 volunteers were asked to read short scenarios where a person was suffering from pain in some way, some depicted physical pain like a deep cut, others involved psychological pain such as the death of a parent.
The volunteers then had to rate how much pain that person felt (1 = no pain, 5 = worst pain imaginable). Those who had taken the painkiller rated the pain of the people in the stories as less severe than the control group did. This suggests that not only does it dull your pain but it also blunts your perception of others’ !
In a second experiment people were blasted with uncomfortable levels of white noise. The participants who had taken the painkiller rated the noise as less painful as those in the control group. They also judged that it would be less irritating to another person than those in the control group.
In a final experiment the volunteers were asked to judge the feelings of someone who they had met earlier. This person appeared to be socially excluded by two others while playing an online game. The participants were asked to rate the feelings of hurt the excluded person might be feeling. Again, those that took the placebo rated the pain and hurt feelings to be more severe than those who took the paracetamol.
“[T]hose who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.” – Baldwin Way, Ohio State University
What does this mean?
Potentially, this could have big implications. Nearly a quarter of Americans take acetaminophen / paracetamol every week. That figure is probably similar in Europe. Having fewer emotional highs and reduced empathy could impact on people’s daily lives. Tiffs with loved ones could spiral into full-blown arguments. Empathy dictates how kindly we treat each other.
On a wider scale, researchers at the University of Michigan found that empathy levels in college students have declined drastically over the last thirty years. The authors think that the rise of social media and the resulting rise in social isolation may be a cause. As might exposure to much more information and violent media. Perhaps a certain common painkiller could also be a reason?
Of course it is important to point out that the studies by the University of Kentucky and Ohio State University were small. typically they involved less than one hundred people, half who took paracetamol and the other a placebo. So it is still way to early to jump to any conclusions. It’s worth remembering that the study by the University of Kentucky found no reduction in positive emotions, just in negative social pain. Paracetamol / acetaminophen is still one of the safest drugs around.
More research is needed, including into other common painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen. We don’t know if they will show similar effects.
So for now, don’t worry about it. If you are in pain then take that pill if you need to. But you might want to ask yourself if you do really need to. Painkillers do a very good job, but like every drug they may have side-effects. So use them as directed if needed, but don’t pop pills for the sake of it.
Being in pain will likely reduce your empathy and emotional responses as well. So be advised but don’t be alarmed.
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