Taking pain relievers makes you more likely to take risks

Research from Ohio State finds that acetaminophen affects our emotions.

man jumping from rope swing
Credit: Blake Wheeler/ Unsplash
  • Previous research has shown that acetaminophen dulls both our positive and negative feelings.
  • The new study finds that those taking the drug consider risks they've been presented as less scary.
  • Acetaminophen is an important everyday painkiller, so it's a good idea to factor in what it may be doing to our judgement.

Acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol and about 600 other medicines — is a pretty remarkable pain remedy for all sorts of things, including headaches. A new study finds that it's even more remarkable than many of us realized: It actually changes the way we assess risks.

According to Dr. Baldwin Way, co-author of the study from Ohio State University, "acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don't feel as scared."

Considering how many of us take acetaminophen occasionally or regularly, this is no small thing. As Dr. Way puts it, "with nearly 25 percent of the population in the U.S. taking acetaminophen each week, reduced risk perceptions and increased risk-taking could have important effects on society."

The study builds on earlier research conducted by Way revealing acetaminophen's psychological effects. That earlier work found that taking acetaminophen caused a reduction in both positive and negative emotions when study participants considered their own hurt feelings or joy, or another person's suffering.

The new study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Walking alone in a scary part of town

person standing on bridge at night

Credit: Francois Hoang/Unsplash

As part of the study, individuals rated the degree of risk they perceived in a range of activities such as "bungee jumping off a tall bridge" and "speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work." They considered these activities to be less risky than a control group not taking the medication.

In the first of the study's experiments, 189 college students took either 1,000 mg of acetaminophen — the standard dosage for headache pain — or a similar-looking placebo.

After giving the acetaminophen time to take effect, those in the study ranked the level of risk they perceived to be associated with a series of activities, on a scale of 1 to 7. Among the activities were walking alone in an unsafe area after dark, bungee jumping, changing careers in one's 30s, and taking a skydiving class. The students taking acetaminophen considered these activities less risky than the control group.

An additional three studies in which individuals participated in an online risk game confirmed this result. In this game, you click to pump up a virtual balloon — as the balloon gets bigger, you earn more money. If the balloon pops, you lose your earnings.

The acetaminophen-takers proved to be bolder than their control counterparts. People in the control group pumped less and successfully cashed out more often. Recalls Dr. Way, "for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting." They pumped more times, and indeed popped more balloons.

Takeaway

Acetaminophen is an important weapon in the modern medical arsenal. Dr. Way points out that it's the CDC's recommended go-to drug for COVID-19 symptoms. In addition to calming our pounding noggins, surgeons typically prescribe acetaminophen, often with codeine, for post-surgical pain relief; your dentists may also suggest it. Its value lies in how well it works, and also that it's more gentle on our digestive systems than some other painkillers such as NSAIDs, drugs that contain ibuprofen. NSAIDs taken regularly pose danger to one's digestive tract.

Given that we're unlikely to stop taking acetaminophen for our aches and pains, the study represents a helpful little wakeup call. Perhaps we should pump the brakes a bit as we consider risks when we're taking acetaminophen. Take a beat, think twice, and only then carefully secure that bungee cord before you leap.

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

America of the 1930s saw thousands of people become Nazi

Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.

Meeting of the German American Bund held at Madison Square Garden, New York City, 20th February 1939.

Credit: Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
  • The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
  • Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
Keep reading Show less

Coffee and green tea may lower death risk for some adults

Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.


Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
  • This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
  • The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Why San Francisco felt like the set of a sci-fi flick

But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast