Psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky said physical and social pain appear to overlap in the brain -- relying on some of the same behavioral and neural mechanisms.
In the first experiment, 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 milligrams daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. Each evening, participants reported how much they experienced social pain using a measurement tool accepted as a valid measure of social pain. Hurt feelings and social pain decreased in those taking acetaminophen, while no change was observed in subjects taking the placebo, DeWall said.
In the second experiment, 25 healthy volunteers took 2,000 milligrams daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. After three weeks of taking the pills, subjects participated in a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection. Functional magnetic resonance imaging used during the game revealed acetaminophen reduced neural responses to social rejection in brain regions associated with the distress of social pain and the affective component of physical pain.
Long-term or high-dosage use of acetaminophen has been linked to serious liver damage, so it is important for patients to follow all package directions and consult a physician if they are contemplating taking any medication for an off-label use, DeWall said.
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.