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Could a Pain Reliever Change How You See Risk?

Taking the OTC pain reliever acetaminophen could change how you see risk and encourage less cautious behavior.
Could a Pain Reliever Change How You See Risk?
Alameda CA – October 16 2017: Store shelf with over the counter (OTC) pain relief products. The most common types of OTC pain medicines are acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory

A popular pain reliever might change how you see risk. That’s the conclusion of researchers at the Ohio State University (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, online July 30, 2020).

Acetaminophen Might Affect How You See Risk:

To test their hypothesis, they administered 1000 mg acetaminophen to some student volunteers and look-alike placebo pills to others. Acetaminophen (paracetamol in the UK and many other countries) is the active ingredient in Tylenol. The investigators chose that dose because people frequently take that amount of the pain reliever to treat a headache.

After taking the medication, the participants answered questions about how risky they judged various activities to be. The ones who had taken acetaminophen were much less concerned about numerous possible dangers. For example, they did not express as much fear of bungee jumping off a high bridge. Likewise, they did not worry about speaking out on an unpopular topic. When the investigators asked about walking home through a dangerous neighborhood, people on acetaminophen were less frightened.

In another portion of the study, students blew up a virtual balloon on a computer screen. Those who had taken acetaminophen were more willing to keep going and risk breaking the balloon—thus losing their winnings—than those who had taken placebo. However, the scientists have not determined the mechanism through which acetaminophen might change how you see risk.

Why Does Risk Assessment with Acetaminophen Matter?

Acetaminophen is a very widely used pain reliever, and nearly one-fourth of American adults take it at least once a week. As the investigators note, many hospitalized patients are given acetaminophen. This could influence their response to questions about the risks of proposed interventions. Similarly, people behind the wheel must often make instant risk judgments. In these times, someone with COVID-19 might take acetaminophen for fever. Because acetaminophen affects risk assessment, some might then decide not to follow precautions to keep from spreading the infection. 

The researchers conclude: 

“Risk perception and risk taking are judgments and decisions that can affect many aspects of our lives, and this common, over-the-counter drug may influence this process, unbeknownst to the millions taking the drug.”

If you are taking a drug that can change how you see risk, you ought to be informed of that possibility.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Keaveney A et al, "Effects of acetaminophen on risk taking." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, online July 30, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsaa108
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