Day-to-day painkiller use doesn't lower empathy levels, but misuse might, according to recent survey

Empathy is fundamental in human social behavior, and analgesics are one of the most commonly consumed drugs globally. Research has shown that analgesic intake can reduce compassion in human beings.

A new Scientific Reports study delved deeper into this association between low empathy and prosocial behavior and analgesic use. 

Study: A pill as a quick solution: association between painkiller intake, empathy, and prosocial behavior. Image Credit: artem evdokimov/Shutterstock.comStudy: A pill as a quick solution: association between painkiller intake, empathy, and prosocial behavior. Image Credit: artem evdokimov/Shutterstock.com

Background

Paracetamol is one of the most common over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics taken to relieve pain and fever. The high usage warrants a deeper investigation into the broader consequences of its use.

Besides the known effects, the painkiller also has effects of social and psychological aspects, i.e., a blunting effect. As an example, research has shown that paracetamol intake leads to a reduction in neural responses to social rejection.

An explanation for this blunting effect is that empathizing with another person’s agony recruits similar neural mechanisms. More specifically, feeling first-hand pain and empathizing with someone else’s pain involves the same brain areas.

The pharmacokinetics of paracetamol dictate that the psychological effects of paracetamol should be short-lived. This is, however, not the case for opioid consumption, where the impact on socio-cognitive functioning could be long-lasting.

Even the heavy usage of paracetamol over longer periods could lead to more sustained effects on socio-cognitive functioning.

About this study

The current study analyzed the association between painkiller intake and empathy and extended it to prosocial behavior, given the close connection between prosocial actions and empathy. An online survey was devised and aimed mainly at young German and Austrian adults. 

A total of 1,097 responses were received. Participants who provided invalid responses and those who reported using illicit psychoactive drugs were excluded, leading to a final sample of 940 individuals.

The participants were between 18 and 92 years old, with a mean age of 26.39. The sample comprised 752 women and the rest men. Forty-four percent of the participants had at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Participants self-reported empathy by filling in the empathy for pain scale (EPS). The helping attitudes scale (HAS) measured prosocial and helping tendencies. Individuals also responded to questions on the daily intake of analgesic drugs.

Key findings

Contrary to previous research, the current study did not observe any significant association between lower empathy or prosocial behavior and the frequency of analgesic intake.

This was also true in the specific case of paracetamol intake. In other words, no blunting effect of painkillers was observed in this study. 

What could explain these findings? One explanation could be that most of the sample was young adults with low analgesic intake.

This lack of variation could have masked the blunting effect documented by other studies. Another explanation could be the combined analysis approach. Different painkillers have different modes of action, and so this could have led to the hiding of the effects of paracetamol or other painkillers.

Given the limited variation in this study, the findings should be replicated in larger samples with higher variation in age and analgesic use. 

The results were slightly different in a sub-sample where analgesics were liberally used, i.e., among individuals with “a pill as a quick solution” attitude. Such individuals showed reduced helping behavior and empathic concern.

This hints towards adverse effects in people who use analgesics for low-pain or non-pain related issues. 

Conclusions

The findings documented here pave the way for original future research and replication of the current insights on larger and more diverse datasets. The key strength of this study revolves around the use of actual day-to-day paracetamol consumption rates and not the effects of isolated high paracetamol doses.

One limitation of this study is the non-assessment of the degree of active pharmaceutical ingredients in the painkillers taken by each participant in the last quarter.

Therefore, future research should deploy longitudinal data and work with medication diaries, which could provide a more holistic understanding of medicine use and dosage. 

In sum, this study sought to further our knowledge of the association between empathy, prosocial behavior, and day-to-day analgesic use. A high frequency of analgesic intake was not correlated with lower empathy or prosocial behavior.

This was not true for individuals who took analgesics for low-pain or non-pain related issues, i.e., liberal users. Liberal users showed lower empathy and prosocial behavior. 

Journal reference:
Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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