There is a drug that has become our best ally to combat pain and fever due to its analgesic and antipyretic action: paracetamol. In fact, it is one of the most consumed drugs in the world and the second best-selling drug in Spain. In the US, one every four people uses paracetamol every week.
Although it is a fairly safe drug, and most people tolerate it very well, it can cause some adverse effects, such as hypotension and elevated transaminase levels in the blood. But the main problem appears when it is used in high doses and for a prolonged period because it can damage the liver.
However, only recently it has begun the study of its psychological effects. In fact, just a year ago a study revealed that paracetamol reduces our capacity to experience positive emotions and now a research conducted at the Ohio State University has revealed that paracetamol not only eliminates pain, but also our empathy.
Feeling less pain we also underestimate others’ suffering
This study was conducted on 80 college students. Half of them received a dose of 1000 mg of paracetamol, and the other half a placebo. Following they were read a number of stories of people who were injured and were asked to rate the pain they could experience. The results revealed that those who had taken paracetamol indicated less pain, showing less empathy.
The researchers, not satisfied with these results, replicated the experiment introducing other variants. This time, they recruited 114 students and exposed them to loud noises. Later they invited them to indicate how the experience had been painful and unpleasant as it might be for other people. Interestingly, those who took paracetamol indicated that the experience was not as unpleasant and that it would not even been so even for other people.
At this point, the researchers went a step further and decided to establish the level of empathy, not only with physical pain but also with the emotional stress. So the participants had the opportunity to identify with the suffering of a person who was going through a difficult situation.
On this occasion, the participants met and socialized briefly. In a second moment they went into a room where they were alone but could see three people who just met. In this “game”, two of the people excluded a third of the activity. The researchers have then asked the participants to rate how the feelings of the excluded person were harmed.
The results showed that those who took paracetamol thought that excluding the person would not hurt his feelings. Everything indicated that the participants were not particularly worried about hurting the feelings of the refused person.
Paracetamol numbs brain and emotions
Previous studies have shown that empathy activates in our brain the same areas that are activated in the brain of the person experiencing pain. But since paracetamol acts directly on nerves and receptors in the brain, disrupting the pain signal, it is understandable that its consumption can diminish our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes.
In any case we shouldn’t be panic because it is probably a transient effect of which to take note, because if you consumed paracetamol is likely that your empathy level is reduced and you’re not able to control the flow of your words or actions.
However, it would be advisable you think carefully whether you really need to take paracetamol because, according to the Spanish Society of Community Pharmacy, about 30% of the consumption of paracetamol is useless. Moreover, recently it came to light also a meta-analysis that included data from 666,000 patients which revealed that the systematic use of this drug increases by 63% the chances of dying unexpectedly, by 68% the risk of a heart attack or stroke and there is a 50% chance of developing ulcers or stomach bleeding.
Therefore, the most sensible thing, as always, is to make a moderate use of paracetamol taking it only when strictly necessary.
Mischkowski, D. et. Al. (2016) From Painkiller to Empathy Killer: Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Empathy for Pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience; 11(5).
Robert, M. et. Al. (2016) Paracetamol: not as safe as we thought? A systematic literature review of observational studies. Ann Rheum Dis;75: 552-559.