Paracetamol, most common pain reliever worldwide, induces risky behaviour, new study says

  • Paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen, is commonly used to treat pain
  • While this remains a safe option for many, researchers are rethinking its effectiveness
  • In a series of experiments, they tested the psychological effects of this medication

Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol, and sold under the brand name Panado in South Africa, is a common painkiller taken by many people.

But, according to a new study that measured changes in people’s behaviour while under the influence of the drug, this medication can increase risk-taking.

Risk-taking tested in experiments

These new findings were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The researchers performed a series of experiments on more than 500 study participants to see how a 1 000 mg dose of acetaminophen affected their risk-taking behaviour compared to placebos.

Participants all had to pump up an uninflated balloon on a computer screen, where they earned imaginary money with each pump. The participants were given instructions to earn as much imaginary money as possible without popping the balloon.

Study results showed that those who took the 1 000 mg of acetaminophen as opposed to the placebo became less cautious in their actions, which led to bursting the imaginary balloon.

Participants also had to fill out surveys to rate their perceived level of risk-taking during several hypothetical scenarios, such as bungee jumping or driving a car without a seat belt. Once again, those on acetaminophen gave answers indicating they felt more comfortable taking risks.

Effects on the choices we make

"Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities – they just don't feel as scared," stated neuroscientist Baldwin Way from The Ohio State University.

"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," Way says.

According to the research team, the investigation of the psychological mechanisms behind findings should be addressed in future research to address the role of pain relief in acetaminophen, and whether it is actually effective.

"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," Way stated.

"We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take.

READ | WHO recommends paracetamol as a safer option for treatment of Covid-19 symptoms

READ | Why do some people experience debilitating headaches in colder weather? 

READ | Are you using the wrong painkillers?

 Image credit: Getty Images 

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