Pain-killer soothes emotional hurt

Paracetamol is one of the more common pain relievers used today. While it is effective, too much of it is not a nice thing for your liver and a recent study (American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine) found that it can increase the risk of asthma and wheezing in children and teenagers. For the latter reasons taking paracetamol excessively without genuine need would not be recommended but new research has shown that paracetamol has a surprising power which points to an interesting aspect of how your body works.

In the new trial it was discovered that paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the United States) could relieve social pain and hurt feelings.

For the research volunteers were recruited and for three weeks half of them took 500mg of paracetamol in the morning and a further 500mg in the evening each day. The other half of the volunteers took a placebo.

During the three weeks of the study the participants were asked to play computer games. The subjects thought that they were playing with other subjects but they were actually playing with the researchers. Throughout the course of the study the games were manipulated so that the participants would feel socially rejected at different times.

For example, a part of the game was to be passing a ball with two other supposed participants but suddenly the other “participants” stopped passing the ball to the subject and kept it to themselves. No reason was given for this exclusion and the presumption is that the participant would feel ostracised and frustrated.

Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) were taken of the participant’s brains while they played the games and each night they were given a survey to fill out in which they assessed their feelings during the day. The surveys showed that those who had taken paracetamol reported fewer hurt feelings than the placebo group. Those on paracetamol also showed less activity in the part of the brain linked with emotions like hurt and rejection while they played the game.

It seems then that this drug which works on the physical level by blocking certain enzymes can also have an impact your emotional state. What then can we draw from this?

The lesson here is not that you should use paracetamol to medicate emotional pain. Firstly, paracetamol has too many side-effects if used excessively for that to be sensible and secondly masking emotional pain is not a desirable outcome in any case.

What this research reminds us is that your mind and body are inextricably linked. What happens in your body impacts your mind and emotional state. Equally, your mind and emotional condition impact your body. The emotional impact of a physical drug like paracetamol illustrates this perfectly. In the Eastern medical models such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine this link is central to their diagnosis and their medicine. In the West however, we have drifted away from seeing the mind and body as one unit and we tend to treat them as discrete entities. This leads to the assumption that you can treat the body without impacting the mind and vice-versa. This study is just a reminder that viewing the human being in this way is perilous when it comes to medicine and medical outcomes.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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