Does Taking a Painkiller Make You Less Empathic Toward Others?

But Mom, Everyone’s Doing It

Even if acetaminophen’s effects are modest and varied, it could still be having a widespread impact simply from the sheer number of people taking the drug.

Almost a quarter of adults in the United States use a prescription or over- the-counter medicine containing acetaminophen. That’s over twice the number of American adults who experience chronic pain. In 2005, more than 28 billion doses of products containing acetaminophen were sold in the United States.

Acetaminophen has come under fire in recent years because of its inclusion in so many medicines. Patients who are taking products containing acetaminophen risk overdosing. That phenomenon sent 56,000 people to the emergency room, 26,000 people to the hospital, and 458 people to the grave between 1990 and 1998.

Acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of acute liver failure, causing nearly half of all acute liver failure cases.

If acetaminophen can blunt empathy, then it’s possible that a large number of people are being subtly numbed out by the drug — not just to others’ pain, but also to positive emotions, suggests research from the same lab that Mischkowski worked in at OSU.

“I think that these side effects that are potentially concerning,” said Mischkowski. “This is a medication that a lot of people take. It’s an overarching goal to figure out whether taking painkillers actually influences how you interact with other people. We don’t know how bad the effects actually are on a larger, societal level.”

Wager shares the concern. “The picture this study paints, along with other recent work, is that acetaminophen can influence [emotions] in small but fundamental, and possibly diverse, ways,” he explained. “Empathy is so important for healthy relationships and a healthy society. When we experience pain and threat, it is possible that we empathize with others less.”

However, both scientists also agree that it’s important not to take these findings out of context.

“If you take acetaminophen, you shouldn’t be scared about these side effects,” Mischkowski said. “You should be aware that when you take acetaminophen for pain relief, you also might, at the same time, numb your empathy toward others. Be aware of it, and take it into context. You shouldn’t just say, ‘OK, I should not take acetaminophen anymore.’ It’s still an important painkiller.”

Wager concluded, “There are costs and benefits to everything, and the right answer for a given person is what those costs and benefits are anticipated to be. More broadly, we need to try to understand drug effects on multiple brain and body systems, without getting lured down the garden path of considering only one system.”

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