Tylenol Ingredient May Relieve Social Pain

Emotional, physical pain interrelated according to UF study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Feeling blue over a recent breakup or nasty comment? Tylenol may help.


A researcher at the University of Florida has discovered that acetaminophen, an active ingredient in many over-the-counter pain medicines, may help relieve social pain from hurt feelings.

“We think that social pain piggybacks onto physical pain, and the two systems sort of bleed into each other,” said UF Psychologist Gregory Webster, who co-authored a recent study with several researchers. “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.”

Since physical and emotional pains are shown to be linked, research suggests treating physical symptoms may help salve emotional wounds as well. Webster said the effect of insults and other social pains might one day be lessened by taking an over-the-counter medication.

According to reports from the study, those who took acetaminophen daily for three weeks felt less emotional pain than those who took a placebo.  

In a second experiment, 25 participants took part in a computerized game that simulated social rejection and had functional magnetic resonance imaging done on two parts of the brain that respond to emotional stimuli.  Those who had taken the placebo showed a stronger activation in those regions – the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, near the front of the brain behind the eyebrows

Webster said he will hold off advising people to take Tylenol for emotional duress until more research is done, however.

“We would like to have a lot more support for this before we run out and tell people to take a Tylenol if they’re having a bad day,” Webster said, but added he and his team of scientists are confident the study “illustrates the mind-body link – the link between physical and emotional pain.”

Researchers also concluded that since rejection can trigger aggression, acetaminophen can be used to help reduce the likelihood of destructive actions.

“Acetaminophen diminished reactivity in regions of the brain that have been linked to emotional processing, which helps regulate aggression,” Webster said.

However, just as physical pain helps stop foreseen injuries, emotional pain also plays a vital function.

“Hurt feelings are important and necessary,” said Geoff MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology, who helped design the experiment. For that reason, he said, “We shouldn’t prescribe Tylenol (for social pain).”

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 15, 2010
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011