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Congenital Analgesia: Imagine a Life Without Pain

Think of a life without pain. No aching back, no throbbing joints; none of those burdensome problems you experience every day. Those hindrances, they are no longer there. It seems great, doesn't it? Not so much.

 

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Image by John Jackson

 

Think of a life without pain. No aching back, no throbbing joints; none of those burdensome problems you experience every day. Those hindrances, they are no longer there. It seems great, doesn’t it? Not so much. Imagine one day cutting yourself, without pain there is no way to know about it until it is already infected. This is Congenital Analgesia.

Otherwise known as Congenital insensitivity to pain, Congenital Analgesia is a condition in which one is unable to perceive pain (1). While this condition is seemingly beneficial, eventually the lack of pain perception can lead to injuries and health issues that can cause shorter life expectancy. See, pain serves a specific purpose in the human body. When something harmful occurs, exposed fibers on free nerve endings called nociceptors are alerted of the stimulus, and send that information in the form of an electrical impulse to the Central Nervous System. The nervous system then passes that impulse to the brain, so it knows that something dangerous has happened to the body (2).

Congenital Analgesia is considered to be a peripheral neuropathy (3), specifically a part of the hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies group. Because of this, cells cannot detect pain. This condition is most commonly caused by a mutation in the SCN9A gene. This gene is a part of a family of genes critical in a cell’s ability to generate and send electric signals by providing instructions for helping create sodium channels in nociceptors (4). People with this condition can still perceive touch, or the temperature of an object, but they do not perceive that the touch or temperature might be harmful.

Congenital Analgesia currently does not have a cure. Instead, treatments are aimed at educating people with this condition, and preventing them from harming themselves. However, Congenital Analgesia is extremely rare. There are only 20 documented cases of Congenital Analgesia, the first being a 2.5 year old boy in Iran (5). In the documented case, symptoms included,

“recurrent episodes of hyperthermia, unexplained fever that began in early infancy, anhidrosis (6), profound loss of pain sensitivity, neurodevelopmental delay, unconscious self-mutilation of fingers, lips and tongue, corneal lacerations, palmar hyperkeratosis, non-painful fracture and joint deformities in the right ankle. Tearing, deep tendon reflexes and motor and sensory nerve action potentials were normal.”

Due to the general obscurity of this condition, not much else is known about Congenital Analgesia. Nevertheless, research is still going into a possible cure for this condition. Despite its seemingly positive benefits, Congenital Analgesia is a harmful medical condition. While a life without pain may seem appealing, it is more troublesome then it appears.


(1) “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain.” Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/12267/congenital-insensitivity-to-pain.

(2) “The Purpose of Pain.” Naked Scientists, www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/features/purpose-pain.

(3) Peripheral neuropathy is a group of conditions that are caused by nerve damage in the peripheral nervous system.

(4) “SCN9A Gene – Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/SCN9A.

(5) KARIMI, Mehran, and Razieh FA LLAH. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3943025/.

(6) Anhidrosis is an inability to sweat.

 

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