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Could Acetaminophen Ease Psychological Pain?

Could Acetaminophen Ease Psychological Pain?

Over-the-counter pain relievers have long been used to alleviate physical pain, while a multitude of other drugs have been used to treat anxiety and depression. The question here is: Is it possible for a common pain killer to ease not just the physical pains of sore joints and headaches, but also the pain of social rejection??

Evidence indicating that acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Cetamol, may blunt social pain has been discovered by a research team led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the U.S. University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology.

The doctor said that based on what they knew about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems, the idea that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection was simple and straightforward. However, he said that surprisingly, he hadn’t found anyone who had ever tested the idea.

DeWall and his colleagues were correct according to a study that is due to be published in the U.S. journal of Psychological Science. Relying on some of the same behavioral and neural mechanisms, physical and social pain appear to overlap in the brain.

DeWall and his colleagues made two experiments to investigate this connection: 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 milligrams daily of either placebo or acetaminophen in the first experiment. The participants reported each evening how much they experienced social pain using a version of the “Hurt Feelings Scale”, which is a measurement tool that is widely accepted by psychologists as a valid measure of social pain. While no change was observed in subjects taking the placebo, but in those taking acetaminophen, hurt feelings and social pain decreased over time. Additionally, with no significant changes observed in either group, the levels of positive emotions remained stable. These results indicate that by impacting emotions that are linked to hurt feelings, the use of acetaminophen could decrease self-reported social pain over time.

The next step was to identify the neural mechanisms underlying the findings after the first experiment.

25 healthy volunteers took 2,000 milligrams daily of either a placebo or acetaminophen in the second experiment. The subjects then participated in a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection after three weeks of taking the pills. During the game, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was employed, which showed that acetaminophen reduced neural responses to social rejection in the regions of the brain that are associated with the distress of social pain and the affective component of physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex and anterior insula). This means that the brain parts associated with physical lit up in the placebo subjects when they were rejected, while the acetaminophen group displayed significantly less activity in these brain areas in response to rejection.

The academic paper that detailed the experiments said that their findings suggest that an over-the-counter painkiller usually used for physical aches and pains could, at least temporarily, alleviate the distress that is caused by social pain. The study also suggested that acetaminophen could also reduce the consequences of antisocial behavior because being rejected can trigger aggressive and antisocial behavior, leading to further complications in social life.

However, readers are cautioned not to immediately stock up on acetaminophen to ease social pain and anxiety, because to verify the potential benefits of acetaminophen on reducing emotional and antisocial responses to social rejection, further research is needed.

Additionally, serious liver damage has been linked with the long-term use of acetaminophen. So if a person is thinking about taking any medication for an off-label use, he/she should follow all package directions and consult a physician.

DeWall said that their research has the potential to change how laypersons and scientists understand social and physical pain. He also said that chronic loneliness or forms of social pain could damage a person’s health as much as obesity or smoking, and that he hopes that their findings could pave the way for interventions that are designed to reduce the pain of social rejection.


Prepared By: Dr. Mehyar Al-Khashroum
Edited By: Miss Araz Kahvedjian

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