Acetaminophen use just got a little more complicated and a little more dangerous

Popping pills at the Heartbreak Hotel

As a child, I remember an elderly relative — a great aunt, I believe — who insisted that infants should be given whiskey in hot weather to calm them down.

I also remember that the rest of my family would humor her. They’d pretend to consider this bizarre baby care advice, and then ignore it.

But crazy as her advice might seem, public health officials in the late 19th century actually did recommend that infants be given a small amount of whiskey during hot weather.

Now, you might think that in our age of advanced medicine there would be no room for nonsense health guidance like that. But believe it or not, a brand new way to treat emotional pain has just emerged, and it’s even more foolish than whisky for newborns.

It’s more foolish because people will die.

Time heals all wounds

Recently, UCLA researchers noticed a similarity between brain images of subjects in physical pain, and brain images of subjects who described their emotional pain.

This made them wonder if these completely different kinds of pain might be processed in the same area of the brain. And if that was the case, could a painkiller treat both kinds of pain?

To find out, the UCLA team recruited more than 60 people. For three weeks, half the group took 1,000 mg of acetaminophen daily, and half took a placebo. During the trial period, each subject played a computer game designed to make them feel rejected. Each subject was also asked to keep a diary to write down how they felt every night.

Results showed a “significant reduction in hurt feelings” in acetaminophen subjects, compared to placebo.

Uh oh. Here we go. You can just imagine how the headlines ran: “Can Tylenol Mend a Broken Heart?” — and all sorts of variations on that theme.

In spite of the “significant” results, it’s pretty obvious that a couple of acetaminophen will not erase a deep emotional pain — turning heartbreak into carefree cheerfulness. But if that’s the message that gets out there, we’re in trouble.

You can imagine a heartbroken teen heading for the medicine cabinet to ease the sting of rejection with a couple of Tylenol. Then, an hour later, when the heartache is still there, a couple of more pills. And an hour after that…

We already have an ongoing national crisis of liver failures caused by acetaminophen overdose. Silly headlines that suggest a couple of Tylenol will heal emotional wounds can only make that situation worse. And young people are particularly susceptible to overdose because they tend to view acetaminophen as a benign drug.

Parents and grandparents, warn your kids that Tylenol and other acetaminophen products are potentially dangerous. Don’t be afraid to nag them about it until it sinks in. And while you’re at it, you can also make it clear that a few pills will NOT cure a broken heart.

Hopefully we can stop this new old wives’ tale before it even gets started.

“Broken Hearts and Broken Bones — A Neural Perspective on the Similarities Between Social and Physical Pain” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 1, February 2012,

“Painkillers and Rejection” Christina Anthony, Real Time Pain Relief, 2/29/12,

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