Acetaminophen is commonly taken for pain, used in over 600 medications, most famously Tylenol. A recent study by researchers at The Ohio State University has found that, while acetaminophen is reducing your pain, it might also be reducing your empathy for the pain of others.
Over a series of tests with two separate groups, the researchers found that people taking acetaminophen rated their own pain, and the perceived pain of others, lower than people who weren’t given the drug.
It’s not that the drug makes people into sociopaths without empathy. We would have realized that some time ago. We have discovered that it reduces that empathy, which can still be pretty bad. Empathy is important when navigating relationships and in society, so numbing it is a negative outcome. Especially since about 23% of American adults use the drug each week.
Before you scoff at the idea, which admittedly has only had the one study performed, keep in mind that another recent study found that the part of the brain that feels pain is the same part used to empathize with the pain of others.
It stands to reason then that, if a drug is making that part of the brain feel less pain, it likely can’t do its job as well regarding the pain of others either. And, of course, acetaminophen doesn’t get rid of the cause of the pain. It just makes the pain easier to deal with while your body—or some other medication—deals with the problem.
The researchers are going to look at ibuprofen next, but hopefully they can do more tests on acetaminophen as well and learn more about how the drug interacts with human brain chemistry.
It’s something that we use constantly, and if it’s actively making it harder for people to get along, even if only for a few hours at a time, that’s something we need to address.