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The common pain reliever acetaminophen can reduce the neurological responses to social rejection, including breakups with friends and lovers.

"I might not be showing it," the newly divorced woman said, "but I feel like my heart is breaking into a million pieces."

"The day you walked out on us was the most painful day of our lives!" a man whose father had abandoned him and his siblings cried when the long-lost parent showed up at his door.

"When my wife left me so suddenly," the grieving ex-husband recalled, "it was like every bone in my body broke."

Anyone who has experienced a loss knows that the term "broken heart" (or in some languages, "broken bone") is not just metaphorical. Abandonment by someone you love causes pain as intense as that of a migraine or a broken bone. Rejection and isolation more than just lowering our spirits. They cause us intense physical pain. But why should they?

Testing the Reality of Psychic Pain

Most pain researchers used to treat physical and psychological pain as if they were entirely different entities. For a broken bone, they might recommend ice. For a broken heart, they might recommend ice cream. Dr. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky wondered if they might not be much the same thing.

Dr. DeWall and his colleagues ran two studies. In the first they simply asked volunteers to take 1000 mg of Tylenol (the best selling brand name of the painkiller acetaminophen) or a placebo every day for three weeks. They also asked all their volunteers to fill out a questionnaire that could be used to measure their psychic pain. At the end of the three weeks, the volunteers who had been taking Tylenol showed a steady decline in the pain of social rejection, while the volunteers who had been given the inactive placebo did not.

Intrigued by their results, DeWall and team then decided to take a look at the brain in action during social rejection. They recruited another set of volunteers to take 2000 mg of the painkiller or a placebo every day for three weeks, and then to come into the lab to play a computer game designed to make some players feel rejected, like kids on a playground. After the volunteers played the game, they were given functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity. In every volunteer who had experienced social rejection, regions of the brain associated with the perception of physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula) lit up — unless that volunteer had been taking Tylenol. The brain experienced emotional pain as if the body had been physically wounded, and Tylenol relieved that pain.

Don't Run Down to the Pharmacy to Stock Up on Tylenol for Your Broken Heart

This study shows that taking a painkiller, or at least taking this specific form of pain relief, can reduce psychogenic pain. That doesn't mean you should run down to the pharmacy to get lots of Tylenol every time you experience emotional pain. Tylenol is toxic to your liver, especially in high doses, like those used in Dr. DeWall's studies. But this study shows that "broken heart" is real pain and a real health concern, just like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, Powell C, Combs D, Schurtz DR, Stillman TF, Tice DM, Eisenberger NI. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol Sci. 2010 Jul. 21(7):931-7. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741. Epub 2010 Jun 14.
  • Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD. Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends Cogn Sci. 2004 Jul. 8(7):294-300.
  • Photo courtesy of mikemozzart: www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/15502494494/
  • Photo courtesy of mikemozzart: www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/15502494494/

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