Health Talk: Congenital insensitivity to pain

Living without pain may at first sound like a gift that all would like to possess: Everyday bumps and bruises would not be as much of an annoyance, and even trips to the dentist would not be as fearful. However, a life without pain is extremely dangerous.

Gabby Gingras, an 8-year-old girl living in Minnesota, is afflicted with this condition, known as congenital insensitivity to pain. It is a rare disease that is inherited, and affects only a few hundred people around the world. She has never felt pain in her life, nor will she, unless treatment is found for her condition. While she also cannot feel temperature, her other touch senses function normally, and she appears to be a normal child. However, similarities end here; her actions are very different from those of normal children.

Since Gabby cannot feel pain, going through teething as a baby caused her to chew on her hands and fingers, mutilating her hands. In addition, she would chew on her tongue just like a chew toy. She would also repeatedly scratch and rub her eyes so much that she is blind in one eye and has very poor vision in the other eye. Without any sensitivity to pain, she had no idea how much pressure she exerted on her eyes when she rubbed them. Gabby’s frightening story, reported on ABC News, gives an account of the dangers of this disorder. Gabby’s parents now make her wear protective eye goggles and have had her teeth pulled to prevent her from chewing on herself. Another such case, reported on, is that of Ben Whittaker. His parents realized that he had this condition when he burned his fingers on a hot plate but did not react, and pulled his teeth out without any difficulty. After a trip to the hospital, it was found that his brain did not interpret pain signals correctly.

Congenital insensitivity to pain has a few recognizable symptoms. Besides the inability to feel pain, the brain cannot interpret signals relating to temperature either. Because of this, it is harder for thermoregulation — the regulation of the body’s internal temperature — to occur. There are two different types of this condition: insensitivity and indifference. Insensitivity is the inability to perceive pain, while indifference is the lack of appropriate reflex responses to pain that can be felt.

Altered function of neurons in the brain is one of the ways congenital insensitivity to pain is caused. There are also other ways, like increased endorphin production in the brain. Endorphins are molecules in your body that when released, prevent nerve cells from releasing more pain signals. In addition, people suffering from Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, may experience insensitivity to pain, as it causes destruction of the nerves.
To live with this condition would mean to live constantly watchful of one’s surroundings. Pain is a reaction that tells the body that something is wrong with it. People with this condition can break their bones and not realize it or burn their hands on radiators or hot light bulbs. Where normal people would exhibit some sort of reflex, people suffering from this condition would not react at all.

Someone with this condition suffering from appendicitis, for example, would have no way of knowing, as the pain would not be felt. Although most would want to lose the feeling of pain, pain is a blessing in disguise. It is a warning to our bodies that something needs to be fixed, or that a certain action will endanger our lives.