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October 25, 2011 at 8:54 AMComments: 7 Faves: 0

Study Suggests Tylenol Can Also Dull Emotional Pain

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This Author

While it's given that rejection and humiliation cause emotional hurt, as many people can attest, they can cause physical pain symptoms - sore muscles or a literally aching heart - as well. Consider the fact that we describe the feeling of deep emotional hurt as being "heartbroken" and it becomes clear that the link between these two experiences has been felt for a long time. Now, the scientific basis for this phenomenon is just being uncovered. Scientists have known  that similarities exist in the way the mind processes physical and emotional pain, but a new study shows they may be more closely related than had ever been expected.

Physical and Emotional Pain

They have found a gene that affects both a person’s physical pain threshold and their emotional sensitivity, and to their surprise Tylenol can boost both! While the idea may seem strange to most, lead researcher, C. Nathan Dewall from the University of Kentucky says he had suspicions they might for awhile.

"The idea that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection seemed simple and straightforward based on what we know about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems… To my surprise, I couldn't find anyone who had ever tested this idea."

The Tylenol Experiment

In the first experiment researchers divided 62 healthy volunteers between two groups. One received 1,000 mg. of acetaminophen and the other half received a placebo. These participants were then studied using the so called “Hurt Feelings Scale” – the way psychologists commonly measure social pain.

The group taking the placebo, as one might expect, showed no change during study – their feelings of pain remained the same throughout. However, the group taking the small dose of acetaminophen ( the equivalent of two Tylenol pills) experienced a reduction in their feelings of rejection and hurt associated with social pain. Encouraged and intrigued by these results, a second experiment was conducted.

The Follow-Up Study

In this experiment 25 healthy volunteers took and increased dosage of acetaminophen – 2,000 mg a day or the equivalent of 4 Tylenol pills for three weeks, while a control group took a placebo. After the three week period was up, subjects from both groups had their brain activity monitored by fMRI and were asked to play a computer game.

Before the game started they were told they would be playing a game with two other people from the study while in actuality they played against two computer players that effectively ignored the human participant after the beginning of the game creating feelings of rejection.  The study once again showed acetaminophen to be effective.  Those who took it had fMRIs that showed less activity in areas of the brain related to feelings of social pain.

Should You Use Tylenol to Relieve Sadness?

Says Dewall,"Social pain, such as chronic loneliness, damages health as much as smoking and obesity…We hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection."

However, he was also quick to point out that while the results were encouraging, the study was preliminary and more research will need to be done before they would recommend the use of acetaminophen for emotional pain.

He also warns that long term usage or abuse of acetaminophen can lead to serious liver problems.


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  • This is certainly intriguing, but I do worry about the long-term effects - seems like it could encourage addiction :/ However, once again, it's incredible to get more proof of just how much our body and our mind are linked!

  • Hmm...yeah. Perhaps, I should put more emphasis on that last sentence.

  • I'd be interested to see if other pain relief treatments, including natural options like Painazol have the same effect.

  • I'm not in love with treating the pain associated with being let down that you were stiffed on a date or your friends abandoned you to go bowling. If this happens chronically in your life, maybe you should find new friends.

    A little heartache, a little disappointment, some challenge in life that does get band-aided over might be good for us. Isn't it the way we deal with situations that defines who we are? If, instead of moving on when let down, we turn to popping pills, what does that say about us?

    While it's true that the long-term medical effects may be undesirable (as pointed out by Laura), it's the lack character-building / I can't deal with imperfections in the road of life so give me a pill attitude that seems, to me, to be the longest-term problem.

  • Agreed, Seth. I'm not so sure that the "pill for every ill" attitude is helpful or healthy (physically, mentally, or emotionally) in the long run.

    That said, it is interesting how connected our body and mind really are. It's kind of like how emotional stress can cause you all sorts of physical problems. An intriguing field of research, for sure!

  • I agree with Seth too. We shouldn't utilize pills for every little problem we come across in our lives. All types of our health (from this article and others) seem to be linked. For example, I used to get so excited for Halloween, that I would becomes physically sick with a stomach ache. It's like my nerves were going crazy. Sadly, I missed out on a couple of trick-or-treating excursions. BUT, after awhile I did learn how to manage that excitement for Halloween to not get an excited tummy ache.

  • Seth - I understand and appreciate your perspective on the issue of treatment. There does have to be some line drawn defining when a person should just allow healing to occur naturally or when a medication may be needed. It's not a clear cut sort of thing. There are a lot of variables I would need to consider before I'd stand behind one route or another for a particular person.

    That said, though I do think that our culture has become more accepting of people with mental illnesses, we're still working on our understanding there. Despite studies and research demonstrating how deeply connected all facets of our lives really are, the idea that our mind and body are equal, connected, and the same, is still something we're adjusting to. I mean, if a person had a blood disorder, it be hard to find a person that would suggest they not take treatment for it. However, if the disorder a person has is a mentally based one, treatment for it becomes much more controversial.

    Whatever the affliction, the safest, most natural treatment that can improve it should be chosen. Too often, people do turn to medications before fully researching their options or they make decisions under the mistaken belief that "pharmaceutical" is equivalent to "better" or "stronger" or "more effective". However, I would hesitate to judge people into either of these groups. I can't really know their situation and so I can't really say what the right choice is for them.

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