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Is Your OTC Pain Reliever Making You Heartless?

Is Your OTC Pain Reliever Making You Heartless?

Here’s a side effect of America’s chronic pain epidemic we haven’t reckoned with yet.

The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is at the heart of the Sandra Bullock/Quinton Aaron film The Blind Side, based on the true story of a remarkable young man, Michael Oher. At 16, he was taken in by an empathetic family and, with their support, he goes from homelessness to a successful NFL career—winning a Super Bowl ring on February 3, 2013, playing right tackle for the Ravens.

Empathy is powerful stuff. When you can understand another person's thoughts and feelings, from his or her point of view, you build common ground, friendship, love and community. But research shows there’s been a 40 percent decline in empathy in America in the past 20 years. And while you may point to this or that external event as the cause, turns out there’s another source: pain-relief medication.

Researchers from Ohio University have found in multiple, double-blind studies that taking acetaminophen reduces your ability to empathize with another person’s pain and pleasure. Since 23 percent of US adults take acetaminophen every week—it’s in 600 different medicines—that adds up to a lot of less-than-generous feelings floating around. Here’s a side effect of America’s chronic pain epidemic (around 50 million Americans are afflicted) we haven’t reckoned with yet.

We suggest opting for lifestyle adjustments to control pain (improved nutrition, better sleep, weight management, more physical activity), so you can take fewer pain-relieving meds and make a public commitment to increase empathy. Want a hand?  Check out “Random App of Kindness.”

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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