The dance of life just took an expected turn, thanks to a new study on pain relievers and happiness.
Here we all are, doing our best to achieve some modicum of happiness. Collecting all the ingredients: food, shelter, meaningful human activity, someone to love, perhaps a dog. Anyone who has had some experience with pain would also add freedom from pain to the ingredient list.
We medical people have spent a long time on that last one: freedom from pain. Opiates were the first “medicines” for pain. These were crude poppy extracts, cheerfully referred to as “milk of the poppy” on “Game of Thrones.” These opiates did reduce pain, but the constipation and nausea they caused could be worse than the headache and, of course, the addiction problem would be a nuisance.
So the search went on. Aspirin, which was originally extracted from Willow bark, has been in use since Hippocrates (400 BC, the Father of Medicine). It is also a good pain reliever and thins the blood a bit, which is handy. It isn’t addicting, and as long as you don’t have an ulcer, it works pretty well.
Restless creatures that we are, we kept looking. Acetaminophen, or paracetamol as the Brits like to call it, was first made 130 years ago. It is easy on the stomach, it’s a pretty good painkiller, and doesn’t cause constipation or any other nasty side effects. It even combines well with either the aspirin or opiate class medications for double the pain-killing punch.
Acetaminophen quickly became our favorite medication. There are hundreds of over-the-counter and prescription medications that contain acetaminophen (paracetamol). There are literally thousands of studies that have investigated acetaminophen and pain. It is one of the most studied medications.
But the new study I mentioned earlier took a different approach and looked at acetaminophen and happiness. This is unusual, but psychology departments do this sort of thing. We know acetaminophen causes relief by reducing pain and the negative emotions that accompany pain. The amazing thing is that the research found that acetaminophen also reduces the emotional component of happiness. It took the sting out of pain and the sweet spot out of happiness. In effect, it limits your emotional range both up and down.
This research was done by my alma mater, Ohio State University, and the researcher was Geoffrey Durso.
Is this relevant? If you have a pounding headache, happiness is not really a consideration, right that second. Taking or doing anything that works for your headache, from pill to ice pack, is likely to move you a little closer to happiness.
But what about the times you take acetaminophen in case you start to hurt or because you have a minor pain, or just because? We seem to take them like candy. From now on, keep in mind that as you limit your pain, you similarly limit your ability to feel happiness. The safety net is both below and above.
Have an OK day.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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