Is your painkiller dulling your empathy?

Is your painkiller dulling your empathy?


Just a few weeks ago, I blogged about five surprising ways acetaminophen (Tylenol) affects your mood and behavior. Well, add another unexpected effect this drug has on you to the list!

According to new research from Ohio State University, when you take acetaminophen to treat the pain of menstrual cramps, headaches and other discomforts, it may also be decreasing your empathy for the physical and social pain others are feeling.

How the researchers discovered this: They conducted three experiments with college students. In each experiment, one-half of the group received 1,000 mg. of acetaminophen (the standard maximum dose for adults) and one-half received a placebo. After waiting an hour for the full effects of the painkiller to kick in, the volunteers were then asked to rate the feelings of others in certain scenarios, including someone experiencing the death of their father, someone hearing extremely loud noise blasts and another being socially excluded. In all experiments, participants who received the acetaminophen displayed less empathy and believed the other person wasn’t as emotionally or physically hurt as those who received the placebo.

“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” lead study author Baldwin Way, Ph.D. said in a news release. “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.”

While further research needs to be done–and will also examine ibuprofen’s effects on our moods and behavior–there is one possible explanation for the link, says Way: The brain region that manages pain in us also gets activated when we imagine someone else in pain. So, if we’re dulling that brain region for our own discomfort, it may be dulling our perception of someone else’s as well.


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