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Is acetaminophen a social-pain reliever? Perhaps, study suggests

We often use the same words to describe physical and mental pain — headaches and heartaches, broken bones and broken spirits.

Recent evidence suggests that physical pain and the feelings associated with social rejection extend beyond metaphors.

Over-the-counter painkillers that alleviate physical aches also can ease mental anguish, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers found that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, may have an off-label benefit.

The experiment involved 62 healthy volunteers who took a daily dose of acetaminophen or a placebo. Hurt feelings decreased over time in those taking acetaminophen, researchers found, but not in those given the placebo.

In another test, researchers gave 25 volunteers a double dosage of acetaminophen or a placebo, but this time they participated in a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection. Acetaminophen reduced neural responses to mental anxiety, while the placebo did not.

"People trivialize the pain of rejection," said University of Kentucky psychologist C. Nathan DeWall, who led the study. "This research has the potential to change how people think about physical and social pain. We hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection and ostracism."

That doesn't mean we should fill our medicine cabinets with Tylenol to cope with personal problems. Researchers caution that long-term use of acetaminophen can have serious side effects, such as liver damage, and the authors say more research is needed to verify the drug's benefits on reducing emotional responses to breakups and social snubs.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.