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Common painkiller acetaminophen eases emotional pain in study

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A team of researchers from University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology have discovered that the common painkiller acetaminophen eases emotional pain as well as physical pain. The findings come from a study of 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 milligrams daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. Surprisingly, feelings of being hurt declined over time in the group taking the common painkiller.

According to psychologist C. Nathan DeWall who led the study, "The idea—that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection—seemed simple and straightforward based on what we know about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems. To my surprise, I couldn't find anyone who had ever tested this idea."

The scientists believe acetaminophen helps social pain and hurt feelings because the same mechanisms in the brain that produce physical pain also lead to psychological pain.

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For the study, researchers used the "Hurt Feelings Scale" - a measurement tool accepted for wide use by psychologists, seen as a valid measure of social pain. Individuals in the study who took placebo did not experience the same diminished feelings of social pain, indicating that acetaminophen, over time, was effective for reducing feelings of social rejection and hurt.

Next, the scientists needed to find the reasons acetaminophen reduced social pain. For the second part of the study, 25 healthy volunteers took 2,000 milligrams daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo, followed by a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection, after three weeks.

Using Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the computer game, the researchers found that the group treated with acetaminophen had less activity in the area of the brain that produces physical pain in response to rejection, compared to the placebo group.

According to the study, the "findings suggest that at least temporary mitigation of social pain-related distress may be achieved by means of an over-the-counter painkiller that is normally used for physical aches and pains. Furthermore, many studies have shown that being rejected can trigger aggressive and antisocial behavior, which could lead to further complications in social life...If acetaminophen reduces the distress of rejection, the antisocial behavioral consequences of rejection may be reduced as well."

Until more studies are done, the researchers say it is important not to use acetaminophen, which is linked to liver damage, in an effort to ease psychological pain. The study is intended to lay groundwork. "We hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection," DeWall said. The findings that acetaminophen eased social pain in the study shows an important neural link between physical and social pain.