Is it possible that Tylenol can help alleviate not just physical pain, but social pain as well?
A growing body of research suggests that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, may help dampen emotional responses.
In a study published earlier this fall, researchers from The Ohio State University found evidence that acetaminophen may reduce behavioral distrust in people with high levels of borderline personality disorder (BPD) features.
The investigators recruited 284 undergraduate students, each of whom they assessed for BPD features using a self-reported scale.
Following a double-blind procedure, the researchers randomly assigned each participant to receive either 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen or a placebo.
Afterward, they asked participants to take part in an economic trust game.
Among participants who had high levels of self-reported BPD features, those in the acetaminophen group showed more trust in their partners than those who had taken a placebo.
Among participants with low levels of BPD features, there were no differences in trust observed between those who had taken acetaminophen and those who had taken a placebo.
“In line with past research, we found that people who self-reported higher levels of characteristics associated with BPD entrusted less money to anonymous partners,” Ian Roberts, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and a lead study author, told Healthline.
“However,” he continued, “our study also found that, for those higher on BPD features, this distrust was reduced when they had been given acetaminophen as compared to a placebo.”
May blunt positive emotions, too
Roberts’ research builds on several studies that have examined the effects of acetaminophen on people’s social and emotional experiences.
“There is a gradually growing body of research that, to date, seems to show that acetaminophen blunts the extremity of affective responses across a number of domains,” he said.
For example, in 2010, researchers from the University of Kentucky reported the results of two experiments designed to investigate the effects of acetaminophen on social pain.
In one experiment, they found that healthy participants who took daily doses of acetaminophen for three weeks reported lower feelings of social pain than those who took a placebo.
In the other experiment, they found that acetaminophen appeared to reduce neural responses to social rejection in the brains of people who were excluded from a virtual ball-tossing game.
Since then, several other research teams have conducted studies on similar topics.
In some cases, they have found evidence that acetaminophen blunts not only negative emotions but positive emotions too.
“More recently, [researchers found that] acetaminophen reduced both negative and positive feelings as people were viewing emotionally evocative images. It also has been shown to reduce empathy for other people’s physical and emotional pain,” Roberts said.
More research is needed
According to Roberts, more research is needed to study the social and emotional effects of acetaminophen in people with high levels of BPD features, as well as other populations.
“Ours is the only study to investigate this so far, and future work is needed to determine if, and under what conditions, these results might replicate,” Roberts said.
For example, additional research is needed to assess the effects of acetaminophen in people with a formal BPD diagnosis, rather than those with high levels of self-reported BPD features.
More research is also needed to learn how acetaminophen may impact people in more complex social situations than those simulated in Roberts’ experiment.
“Right now, our work primarily suggests a new, important topic for researchers to investigate — whether the use of acetaminophen, and possibly other over-the-counter medications, has effects on the interpersonal lives of people with high BPD features,” Roberts said.
“Regarding acetaminophen and affective responses more broadly, I think it’s an exciting and intriguing area of research. It helps point to new ways of understanding and exploring how brain processes and affective experience relate,” he added.
If you’re coping with social or emotional pain and you’re tempted to self-medicate with acetaminophen, it may be better to hold off.
“We just don’t know enough about how acetaminophen affects emotions or trust — and we really don’t know what the effects would be in the longer term for folks who are interpersonally or emotionally sensitive,” Roberts warned.
“Because acetaminophen has also been shown to reduce positive feelings and to decrease empathy, it’s possible that self-medicating could have the opposite effect from what is intended. We need to know more about what it’s doing, and when it might have different outcomes,” he added.
Regularly taking high doses of acetaminophen can also cause adverse physical effects, Dr. Philip G. Conaghan, MBBS, PhD, FRACP, FRCP, told Healthline.
“The main potential problem with paracetamol [acetaminophen] remains its potential for liver damage in people taking doses greater than four grams per day,” he said. “This potential for liver damage is enhanced in people drinking alcohol.”
If you’re experiencing chronic or severe emotional pain, make an appointment with your doctor.
They might prescribe medications, recommend lifestyle changes, or refer you to a mental health specialist who can help diagnose and treat the causes of your pain.