Day 10 of the science advent is taking us into the territory of obscure fun facts. For today, we’ve chosen a rare condition to talk about, namely congenital insensitivity to pain, congenital analgesia or congenital nociceptor deficiency. People who suffer from this condition are unable to feel physical pain.
In theory, it sounds like a dream, right? No more headaches, no more stubbed toes, no more menstrual cramps etc. Unfortunately, it’s actually an extremely dangerous and life-threatening condition. You see, pain serves a vital function for survival: it informs us that something is wrong, so we can take appropriate action. For example, if we break our leg, we won’t step on it until it heals, because it’s incredibly painful. But when this physiological response is absent, people will keep stepping on that leg, and will do nothing other than aggravate the injury. The same holds true for virtually any physical harm we might encounter. In fact, those affected by this disorder often die during childhood, exactly because they do not notice their injuries and hence do not care for them correspondingly.
The disorder is genetic and to date scientists have identified dozens of genetic variants associated with it, most of which are autosomal recessive. There is currently no treatment, but opioid antagonists seem to be promising in that sense. On the other hand, research of congenital analgesia has provided tremendous insights into how human pain reception works. Additionally, that is driving the development of new, non-opioid types of analgesics.
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Drissi, I., Woods, W. A., & Woods, C. G. (2020). Understanding the genetic basis of congenital insensitivity to pain. British Medical Bulletin.