The moment you feel a little pain, like a headache or a cramp, what do you do? Some drink water, some lie down, but many of us pop acetaminophen. Clockwork, right? Painkillers are such an easy remedy, but according to a new study published in Psychological Science, acetaminophen (trade name: Tylenol) may also dull our emotional sensitivity—to both pain and pleasure.
In the experiment, researchers had 82 patients take a pill—half took acetaminophen and half took a placebo. After waiting an hour for the drug to kick in, the researchers made the participants look at 40 photographs that were meant to spark some kind of emotional response. Some were sad (“crying, malnourished children”) and others were quite joyful (kids playing with kittens!). And of course, there were neutral photos (a cow in a field. Might be the most neutral image out there).
After looking at the photos, the participants were asked to rate them on a scale from positive to negative—then after looking at the same photos a second time, they were asked to rate how much emotion each photo provoked. The folks who had taken acetaminophen rated both the positive and negative photos as more neutral and less emotionally intense than those who took the placebo. In other words, the painkiller dampened their emotional sensitivity.
“This means that using Tylenol or similar products might have broader consequences than previously thought,” lead author and social psychology doctoral candidate Geoffrey Durso said in a statement. “Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever.”
The exact mechanism of how acetaminophen relieves even physical pain is still not specifically known, but a small study last year also linked the painkiller to a similar kind of blunting in moral judgment.
So it looks like if you need a break from sensitivity in general (while you’re taking a break from pain of course), Tylenol is your best bet. It’s just, um, a little weird that millions of people may be inadvertently numbing their emotions. Further research is most definitely needed.