One of the most consumed medications in the United States, and the most commonly taken analgesic across the world, could be doing a lot of harm while we believe it takes the edge off our headache, new evidence says.
Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol and mainly sold under the brand named Tylenol and Panadol, also enhances risk-taking, new research that measured changes in people’s behavior while under the influence of the drug.
“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities – they just don’t feel as scared,” says neuroscientist Baldwin Way from The Ohio State University. “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.”
Acetaminophen Affects Negatively
The discoveries add to a recent dataset of research suggesting that acetaminophen’s effects on pain reduction also spread to numerous psychological processes, decreasing people’s receptivity, experiencing reduced empathy, and even dulling cognitive functions.
Equally, the new study says people’s affective capacity to perceive and evaluate risks can be impacted when they consume acetaminophen. Although the effects might not always be major, they are definitely worth mentioning, considering that acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 different types of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
In a number of experiments involving more than 500 participants, Way and his colleagues measure how just one 1,000 mg doses of acetaminophen randomly given to participants impacted their risk-taking behavior, in comparison to placebos randomly administrated to a control group.
In the experiments, participants had to inflate a balloon on a desktop, and each pump would earn them imaginary money. Their instructions were to earn as much money as they could by pumping the balloon at maximum but to ensure they do not pop the balloon; otherwise, they will lose the money.
The results showed that the participants who took acetaminophen were more prone to risk-taking during the exercise, while the placebo group was more cautious and conservative. Overall, those on acetaminophen pumped and burst their balloons more than the ones in the control group.
“If you’re risk-averse, you may pump a few times and then decide to cash out because you don’t want the balloon to burst and lose your money,” Way says. “But 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.”
The Drug Reduces Perception of Danger
Besides the balloon simulation, participants also took surveys during two of the experiments, rating the level of risk they saw in different hypothetical scenarios, such as betting a day’s income on a sporting event, bungee jumping off a high bridge, or driving a car without a seatbelt.
In one of the surveys, acetaminophen consumption did reduce the perceived risk in comparison to the controls, but in another similar survey, the same impact wasn’t observed. However, overall, based on the average results on multiple tests, the team says there is a major link between taking acetaminophen and choosing more risk.
The researchers acknowledge the medication’s effects on risk-taking behavior could also be seen through other types of psychological processes, such as reduced anxiety, perhaps.
“It may be that as the balloon increases in size, those on placebo feel increasing amounts of anxiety about a potential burst,” the researchers explain. “When the anxiety becomes too much, they end the trial. Acetaminophen may reduce this anxiety, thus leading to greater risk taking.”
Acetaminophen is Still Consumed Despite Studies Seriousness
On the other hand, researchers will also have future possibilities to further examine the role and actual efficacy of acetaminophen in pain relief more widely, after numerous studies in recent years discovered that in most medical scenarios, the drug can be ineffective at reducing pain, and sometimes no better than a placebo, besides developing other kinds of health conditions.
In spite of the seriousness of those findings, acetaminophen is still one of the most used medications in the world, also considered an essential medicine by the World Health Organisation, and recommended by the CDC as the main drug you should likely take, in case you show symptoms of the coronavirus.
After what we’re finding out about acetaminophen, we might want to rethink some of that ‘advice,’ Way says.
“We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take,” he said.
The findings were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.