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07-07 Acetaminophen decreases empathy as it relieves pain, study shows

Acetaminophen decreases empathy as it relieves pain, study shows

Acetaminophen is the main ingredient found in many painkillers such as Tylenol and is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, as it is found in over 600 medications. Acetaminophen is known to be a very effective fever reducer as well as a pain reliever. Acetaminophen is found in over-the-counter and prescription medications. Common over-the-counter medications that contain acetaminophen are Nyquil, Tylenol, Robitussin, Theraflu, Dimetapp, Excedrin, Goody’s Powder and many more.

Although acetaminophen is relatively safe, individuals with liver disease should be extremely cautious, as acetaminophen is metabolized by the liver and can have harmful effects if taken in extremely large dosages. Approximately 23 percent of adult Americans consume medications containing acetaminophen each week. Due to the high consumption rate of acetaminophen, a recent study was performed by The Ohio State University, which showed a direct link between acetaminophen and empathy.

Acetaminophen’s effect on empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and relate to feelings of others. It is a respectable trait in humans and is controlled by an area in the brain called the right supramarginal gyrus. “Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by ‘a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness.’ When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, researchers have found that brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and compassionate decision-making,” according to an article.

The study performed by Ohio State University performed two studies on college students to test the relationship between acetaminophen and empathy. In both studies half of the college students were given a rather large dose of acetaminophen and the other half, the control group, were given a placebo. The first experiment consisted of both groups reading eight scenarios about a subject experiencing different kinds and different levels of pain. Both groups then rated the pain levels of each of the subjects in the story. In the second experiment, the experimental group and the control group received large noise blasts and then were asked to rate how unpleasant the noise blasts were for themselves and for others.

The results in both of these studies showed that both groups of individuals who were given the dose of acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as less painful for both themselves and for others, and rated the pain scales in the scenarios at lower levels compared to the group that was given the placebo. This study demonstrated that after taking acetaminophen, individuals’ empathy levels decrease. “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,” according to the lead author of the study.

More research needed

The mechanism of how acetaminophen and empathy are linked is unclear, and more research is needed to investigate the details of this relationship. However, the study’s authors are looking into whether other over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen can also reduce empathy. Unlike acetaminophen, ibuprofen has potent anti-inflammatory properties, but like acetaminophen, it is known to relieve pain.

Empathy is a large part of the human emotional spectrum and blunting this aspect can potentially cause emotional pain toward others. This research may even shed more light on how pharmaceuticals can affect mental and emotional health and well-being.

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Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego treats adolescents with mental health disorders, substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a medical writer at Sovereign Health, who enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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