A side effect of acetaminophen you never expected

When you think of drugs that lead to "risky" behavior, something hardcore probably springs to mind — the cocaine that fueled Al Pacino's gun-wielding paranoia in Scarface, perhaps? It turns out, though, that the legal, over-the-counter medication acetaminophen, commonly sold as Tylenol, may make you feel more comfortable doing something wild, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University (via Science Daily).

Participants in this study, which was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience this summer, played a computer game in which you could earn money every time you opted to inflate a balloon, but there also carried a risk of popping that balloon with every inflation, which meant you'd lose all your money. Those who took the popular pain relief drug risked adding more air to their balloons than those given a placebo. "If you're risk-averse, you may pump a few times and then decide to cash out because you don't want the balloon to burst and lose your money," explained study co-author Baldwin Way to Ohio State News. "But for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting."

Pain relief medications can numb our emotions, experts say

This recent analysis aligns with previous findings that analgesics — or pain killers — blunt both our positive and negative feelings, which is why we're less concerned about the consequences of taking a risk (per Medicine Net). Those taking acetaminophen — which approximately one-quarter of Americans pop every week to relieve a headache, backache or cramp — said they'd be more willing to go bungee jumping or speak out about something controversial at work than those who were not taking the medication, according to Science Daily. This numbing of emotions is called a "flat affect" in medical parlance, and it essentially means having a good poker face. Way's earlier research had concluded that acetaminophen reduces hurt feelings, distress over another's suffering, and even feelings of joy. 

Considering that we're currently living through a pandemic where taking risks could lead to mass transmission of a life-threatening disease, Way said it's especially important to be aware of this "risk of risk aversion" before we take a pain killer. "Perhaps someone with mild COVID-19 symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they're taking acetaminophen," he explained.