Acetaminophen Relieves Social Pain

August 16, 2010

Emotional and physical pain may be inter-related, according to a study by researchers at the University of Florida focusing on acetaminophen and social pain.

Emotional and physical pain may be interconnected, according to a study by researchers at the University of Florida focusing on acetaminophen and social pain.

“We think that social pain piggybacks onto physical pain and the two systems sort of bleed into each other, so that just as you feel emotional distress from physical pain, the social pain of having a romance breakup or getting a horrible grade can translate into feeling sick to your stomach or getting a bad headache,” Gregory Webster, UF psychologist, and study co-author, said in a press release.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science and evaluated people who took acetaminophen daily for three weeks. The individuals reported less emotional suffering over time and less activity in regions of the brain that respond to social rejection.

"Even so," Webster said, "we don't want to tell people to go take Tylenol to cope with their personal problems until more research is done."

The results demonstrate that acetaminophen may have the potential to treat minor social pains, rather than using more powerful drugs, Webster said, in a press release.

The study participants were evaluated using MRI while playing a computerized game of cyber ball to stimulate social rejection. The participants were asked to pass a ball to two computerized images of people and then were suddenly excluded from the exchange as the digital participants continued on passing the ball to each other.

“They were not given a reason why, which made it frustrating, which is exactly what we wanted to do,” Webster said. “We wanted to give them this feeling of being socially ostracized.”

Half of the participants were given a 500 mg pill of acetaminophen immediately after waking up each day and another 500 mg pill one hour before going to sleep. They were told to fill out a survey to asses their level of hurt feelings. The group taking acetaminophen reported significantly fewer hurt feelings on average.

“The possibility of this link between physical and social pain systems is exciting because we live in a dualistic society where people see the mind and body as being very separate,” Webster said, in a press release. “In terms of public policy, it may indirectly support the notion that we should treat mental health issues the same way we treat physical health issues instead of having separate systems for the two.”