New Study Says Common Painkillers Could Make People Riskier

Surprising effects on the brain found in widely used over-the-counter drugs

Photo: AsiaVision/Getty Images

Acetaminophen, the pain-killing ingredient in Tylenol, alters a person’s perception of risk, potentially leading to behaviors they would otherwise not consider, preliminary new research suggests. The drug can also lower physical pain caused by emotional distress such as hurt feelings and even lessen our empathy for other people, other research finds.

Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in the painkiller Advil, has also been found to alter emotions, raising overall questions about the broad psychological effects — poorly understood, as of now — of over-the-counter medications consumed by tens of millions of Americans daily, often in higher-than-recommended doses.

People taking acetaminophen in the new study, published in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, had fewer qualms about things like bungee jumping or speaking up about an unpopular issue at work. They also took greater risks in games played for prizes.

“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared.”

The research involved multiple experiments. In one, college students who took 1,000 mg of acetaminophen — the common dose for a headache — ranked activities like bungee jumping, skydiving, and starting a new career as less risky than the rankings made by students who were given a placebo pill. In another experiment, students clicked a computer button to inflate a balloon on screen, earning virtual money with each click but knowing they’d lose it all if it popped. At any time, they could bank their winnings and move on to the next balloon. Those who’d taken acetaminophen pumped more times and burst more balloons than those in the control group who’d taken a placebo.

“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared,” said Baldwin Way, PhD, co-author of the new study and an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Blunted joy and empathy

Previous research by Way and colleagues found acetaminophen also reduces the impact of joy and other positive and negative emotions, including empathy — the ability to understand and share the physical or emotional pain of others. A separate research group found the drug can reduce the existential dread of thinking about death. More research is needed, Way says, to understand the significant range of the drug’s effects.

Painkillers can also reduce pain felt when a person is rejected by a lover or excluded by friends. This emotionally generated “social pain,” as it’s called, is not fully understood, but it can cause anxiety or depression and involves real physical pain, triggered in brain circuits that overlap with those that make us feel the hurt of a cut or burn. Studies have shown that physical pain, such as intense heat, will hurt worse when a person is also experiencing social pain. Depression, an extreme example of social pain, is known to generate vague body aches and pains.

In one example, people with a strong tendency to forgive others experience less social pain if they’re taking acetaminophen compared to a placebo, according to a study last year in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. The research confirmed a synergistic effect the scientists expected.

Much more needs to be learned, experts say, to determine whether painkillers can actually change behaviors and might be used, in select situations, to treat anxiety, depression, or other types of social pain.

“Acetaminophen likely reduces social pain by influencing pain signaling in the brain through its effects on specific brain pathways,” says study leader George Slavich, PhD, director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research. “On the other hand, forgiveness has been found to lessen peoples’ feelings of stress and anger following experiences of social rejection and exclusion.”

Ibuprofen appears to alter emotions, too. One study found it makes women feel less social pain, but it makes men feel it more. And in unpublished research still in progress, Way and colleagues are “seeing effects of ibuprofen on blunting perceptions of emotion as well,” he says.

Caution advised

Like acetaminophen, ibuprofen can reduce pain and fever, but ibuprofen also reduces inflammation. Both have side effects, including an increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and heart attack, especially if taken frequently or in high doses.

Much more needs to be learned, experts say, to determine whether painkillers can actually change behaviors and might be used, in select situations, to treat anxiety, depression, or other types of social pain. A 2018 review of research on how painkillers can alter emotions concluded the field is in its infancy, and a better understanding of the range of effects is needed.

The new study involved only college students and just a few hundred participants.

“I think it is premature to recommend the usage of acetaminophen or other over-the-counter analgesics for reducing one’s social pain and distress,” Way tells Elemental. “The effects of these drugs are highly contingent on the nature of the person and the situation. In some situations, the drug may actually have the opposite effect intended. Until we know more about these effects, it would be prudent to focus on psychological or behavioral methods for reducing distress.”

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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