It’s True—this OTC Medication Could Ease Heartbreak

The next time you're feeling rejected, you may want to consider this over-the-counter pain reliever. Read on to see if it's right for you.

heart made out of pillsAfrica Studio/shutterstock

Whether it’s from the end of a relationship or receiving bad news about an illness, researchers know that broken heart syndrome is real. Known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the condition happens almost exclusively in women.

Because of this connection between emotional stress and a physical response, researchers at the University of Kentucky set out to understand what happens when physical and emotional pain overlap—and whether there might be some sort of heartbreak medication. They’d previously studied the effects of Vicodin (a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen) on emotional pain, which is experienced in the same part of the brain as physical pain. Now they wanted to see if acetaminophen alone (Tylenol) had similar effects.

Turns out, it does. Although suffering social rejection may seem completely different from suffering physical injury, the pain of social rejection and physical pain are interconnected, their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest.

Studying medicine and social pain

For the study, researchers asked 62 undergraduate students to take either a placebo or 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen daily for three weeks. Participants were then asked to fill out a questionnaire each night about what, if anything, hurt their feelings that day. They also noted any positive emotions they had. Those who took acetaminophen reported lower levels of social or emotional pain than those who were given placebos.

In a second experiment in the study, students took either a placebo or 2,000 milligrams of acetaminophen every day for three weeks. Participants played a computer game that was rigged to make them feel socially rejected and excluded from participating. They had MRIs during the games, which showed that those who took acetaminophen had fewer hurt feelings from being excluded than those who took placebos.

Researchers looked at brain imaging and found that after participants took the pills, the area of the brain that deals with social pain seemed to show a duller response; they knew they were being rejected, but didn’t care as much. Researchers noted that while there were not massive changes in how much pain people felt, it still yielded some results.

Their findings suggest that an over-the-counter painkiller normally used to relieve physical aches and pains can also at least temporarily mitigate social pain-related distress.

Another side effect of acetaminophen

A study published in 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology takes the findings on a potential heartbreak medication one step further. Researchers found previously unknown side effects of acetaminophen: The painkiller also blunts positive emotions and reduces empathy.

“The question of how acetaminophen reduces the experience of pain, whether it be emotional or physical in origin, is still a bit of a mystery,” says researcher Baldwin Way, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychology at The Ohio State University, in Columbus. In the study, participants who took acetaminophen reported less strong emotions when they saw both very pleasant and very disturbing photos when compared to those who took placebos.

“That acetaminophen reduces the positivity ratings of images like a cute baby or puppy, as well as reduces ratings of negative images like of a skull or a mutilated body suggests that it might have a broader effect than just reducing pain,” says Way. “The effects on reducing pain may be part of a larger effect on blunting emotions in general.” 

In any case, none of these study results suggest that you should regularly start taking Tylenol the next time you feel stressed or sad, particularly if you have liver issues. Try these natural remedies for depression first, and talk to your doctor if your sadness or depression lasts longer than a few weeks or is severe.

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