A research team led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology has uncovered evidence indicating that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) may blunt social pain.
“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,” DeWall said.
According to a study due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, DeWall and colleagues were correct. Physical and social pain appear to overlap in the brain, relying on some of the same behavioral and neural mechanisms.
DeWall and colleagues investigated this connection through two experiments. In the first experiment, 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 milligrams daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. Each evening, participants reported how much they experienced social pain using a version of the “Hurt Feelings Scale” – a measurement tool widely accepted by psychologists as a valid measure of social pain. Hurt feelings and social pain decreased over time in those taking acetaminophen, while no change was observed in subjects taking the placebo. Levels of positive emotions remained stable, with no significant changes observed in either group. These results indicate that acetaminophen use may decrease self-reported social pain over time, by impacting emotions linked to hurt feelings.