11 Things You Didn't Know About People Who Can't Feel Physical Pain

Sticks and stones may break your bones - but what if you couldn't even feel them? While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, some people are born with a condition that makes them unable to experience pain. Congenital insensitivity to pain is very rare, and incredibly dangerous. After all, pain is the body's signal to stop that risky activity you're currently engaged in. Without that trigger, what's to keep you from doing serious damage to yourself?

People who can't be hurt have to cope with the world in a different way. Even a hot cup of coffee presents a potential hazard when you have an inability to process the sensation of a burnt tongue. From physical problems to other emotional or behavioral disorders, individuals with this condition can experience them all. Sometimes the condition also includes anhidrosis, or the inability to sweat. Facts about people who can't feel pain are as fascinating as their condition is mysterious.

Photo: Svetlana Miljkovic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • They're Part Of A Very Small Group

    There is not a definitive count on the number of cases of congenital insensitivity to pain worldwide, but the existing data suggests that this is an extremely rare disorder. The United States has under 100 reported cases of the condition. Japan has a comparatively high number of cases, over 300.

  • They Were Born This Way Thanks To A Genetic Mutation

    This condition presents in two ways: congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), and congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA). Both are caused by genetic mutations that interrupt the transmitting of pain signals to the brain.

    In addition to pain, the condition can impact the sweat glands and temperature regulation. Individuals with CIPA sweat very little, or not at all, since they can't experience changes in temperature.

  • They Might Not Have A Sense Of Smell

    Sometimes, the inability to feel pain goes hand in hand with anosmia - the complete loss of the sense of smell. This is due to the same genetic mutation that causes the condition. Those mutated genes can also interfere with the olfactory sensory neurons that transmit smell-related information to the brain.

  • They Often Hurt Themselves Unintentionally

    Since individuals with CIP are impervious to pain - and often temperature as well - they're prone to hurting themselves by accident. Young children frequently injure their cheeks, tongues, and lips through chewing, and sometimes their fingers too. Burns are also a potential danger.

  • They Can Experience Autoamputation

    The accidental damage people with CIP do to themselves can have dire long-term consequences. Repeated injuries to certain areas of the body, particularly the fingers and toes, can cause damage to blood vessels. If these blood vessels do not recover, the area of the body they were once providing blood to will start to die from lack of oxygen. Ultimately, this can result in the detachment of the limb or digit from the body in a process known as spontaneous amputation or autoamputation.

  • They Can Suffer From Chronic Bone Infections

    Osteomyelitis, a type of bacterial bone infection, can occur after a bone fracture. They cause fever, nausea, and tenderness or swelling in the affected area. Children with CIP are particularly prone to these infections, but they're relatively easy to treat.

    Repeated injuries may also cause a condition called Charcot joint or Charcot arthropathy, which degrades the bones and connective tissue surrounding joints.