We always hear about the never-ending list of adverse side effects from prescribed medications—everything from common and mild issues to the very worst symptoms, which typically include some sort of physical repercussion.
But now, a recent study also suggests that the side effects from medications can even affect how NICE we are. That’s right, a 2016 study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Ohio State University have discovered that acetaminophen (Tylenol)—the common pain reliever almost everyone has taken at one time or another—can actually affect your ability or “capacity” to empathize with someone else. (1)
Acetaminophen is typically used to treat mild to moderate pain for such things as headaches, muscle aches, back pain and even toothaches. It is also widely used to reduce fever in both children and adults.
Acetaminophen is the main ingredient in Tylenol and is found in over 600 other medications worldwide. (2)
Statistics show that each week, about 23 percent of Americans alone—approximately 52 million adults—use a medicine containing this drug. (3)
Alarmingly, this new study now shows that while these 52 million people may be alleviating their pain, they may also be less empathetic to other’s pain and suffering as a result.
The study, which was conducted in two parts and used 200 college students, ultimately reveals that taking acetaminophen can affect the part of your brain that relates to empathy for others. Through a series of tests designed to determine the amount of compassion subjects felt for others, researchers were able to conclude that those people who took 1000 mg of acetaminophen (the normal dose), were less able to feel sympathy for others in various situations such as being read “…a scenario in which someone suffered pain from a knife cut that went down to the bone… or a person experiencing the death of his father..(4)
In the second part of the study, the subjects (both a placebo group and a group that had taken acetaminophen) experienced “four two-second blasts of white noise that ranged from 75 to 105 decibels.” Researchers then asked them to rate the noise based on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being extremely unpleasant. (5)
To determine their ability to empathize with others, the subjects were also asked to rate how much pain someone else might feel if they experienced the same noise blast they had just received. Essentially, results of the study showed the people who took the acetaminophen not only rated the noise as less painful for themselves, but also less painful for their imagined counterparts.
“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” says Dominik Mischkowski, one of the main authors of the study. And while researchers may be able to determine that taking a few Tylenol may leave you a little “numb” when it comes to feeling and perceiving pain in general, they are still not entirely sure why this is so.
Dr. Baldwin Way, an Ohio State psychologist and the senior author of the study, admits the findings are disconcerting for many reasons. “Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”
The study may have much larger implications than just someone’s hurt feelings, however, according to researchers: “Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen.” (6)
Can this study explain the growing divorce rate in America, or the number of seemingly self-centred individuals we run into everyday? Likely, not, but it may be an indication that taking any type of medication may have more effects on our bodies (and minds) than we think, especially since a previous study in 2004 by several of the same researchers reveals that acetaminophen has similar effects on even our positive emotions such as joy. (7)