Acetaminophen Kills Pain and Empathy

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Taking acetaminophen as a painkiller is not only killing your pain, it may also be killing your empathy. A new study suggests that if you take this medicine to decrease your pain, it may be decreasing your ability to empathize with other people’s pain, both physically and socially.

Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter medicine that serves as a pain reliever and fever reducer. It is typically used to treat minor conditions such as headaches and body aches. Acetaminophen is found in over 600 different medicines (Tylenol is a popular one), this includes both over-the-counter and prescription medications.

Empathy, defined by the International Journal of Caring Sciences says that “empathy is the “capacity” to share and understand another’s “state of mind” or emotion.” This regulates our social behavior. It is the ability to feel and understand what another person is feeling; to “step into their shoes,” so to speak. It can be expressed through excitement, sorrow, joy, confusion and pain. Sympathy and compassion are related terms used in association to empathy, though all have different meanings. Having empathy can also deter impulsive aggressive and/or hurtful actions. The reduction of empathy from readily accessible over-the-counter medication raises much concern on a social level, especially since about 25% of adults in the United States take the drug each week.

A study was conducted that included two double blind, placebo-controlled experiments with 80 college student participants in the first experiment and 114 in the second. Both experiments included empathy scenarios and noise pain. The students were read eight scenarios that described both physical and social pain. Physical pain included things such as cutting your finger or stepping on a thumbtack with bare feet. Social pain included a parent passing away or over-hearing a conversation that another person dislikes you. For the noise portion, participants received four surges of white noise. The participants then had to rate the scenarios and noise pain based on what they felt, not knowing if they had taken a placebo or acetaminophen. All scenarios were designed to cause personal distress.

Overall, the study found that acetaminophen reduces a person’s ability to feel another person’s pain. Physical pain is never a pleasant experience and without question many people turn to this popular painkiller to suppress their pain. At this time it is not completely clear as to why taking acetaminophen reduces a person’s empathy. Furthermore, this study concluded additional concern about the drug-induced empathy reduction and the interference with the social bonds may be far more consequential than previously assumed. Empathy is essential in everyday life situations and relationships. And although it may be surprising, we are still learning about this very commonly taken drug every day

Enhancing your ability to empathize can help you connect more deeply with others and maintain healthy relationships with the people in your life. Does your significant other ever tell you that you need to be more understanding or better express emotions? This could just have something to do with that! Empathy is more of a complex trait then we would naturally recognize. More in depth, it helps us to know, recognize and control our own as well as other’s feelings on a deeper level. Though acetaminophen is most likely not the true underlying cause of your relationship debacles, it is an interesting idea to ponder.