New research is taking a closer look at the drugs targeted at physical pain and how they might affect other aspects of behavior and emotional experience.
One study in 2010 found that acetaminophen,the active ingredient in Tylenol, reduces behavioral and neural responses associated with the pain of social rejection. The study feels that because the drug can help both types of pain, there is a large overlap between social and physical pain.
Dubbed the “pain related affect”, researchers are looking into “subjective feelings or impressions of anguish that accompany almost any harmful stimulus.” In other words, it is not only physical sensations that register as pain, but emotions and social distress that can hurt as well. In fact, “hurt feelings” result in the same firing of neural pathways.
Acetaminophen has always stood apart from other mind-altering pain killers such as opioids as it was not thought to influence a patients emotions or mental state. As this widely used over-the-counter drug is considered relatively benign (aside from conditions that result from over use) it has become one of the most commonly used drugs for pain on the market.
However, recent research shows that Tylenol does in fact alter moods and may moderate feelings of anxiety. The study above found that participants taking acetaminophen responded less to scenarios of social rejection than those taking the placebo. These studies garnered much attention and interpretation in the media and are an interesting contribution to the discussion of how the brain interprets pain. For more of this topic see the links below.