The inability to feel physical pain may sound awesome, but congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) isn't all that fun.
It sounds like a superpower straight from comic books, the inability to feel pain. People with CIP can hold their hand in boiling water and not even flinch. This condition is also so rare that among 7.5 billion people in the world, only a few hundred are confirmed to have CIP.
However, people with CIP won't be putting on masks and costumes to save the city from its seedy underbelly anytime soon. While being unable to feel pain may seem like a superpower, it's actually more of a curse.
Congenital insensitivity to pain is a rare genetic disorder. People with this condition are strangers to pain right from birth. They can feel things that can hurt most of us, like extreme heat or the sharpness of a knife, but they won't experience painful sensations.
So why is this condition a bad thing? Feeling no pain means that you won't be able to tell if you've been injured. Pain may be a negative sensation, but it does have its purpose. It tells us when something in our body has gone wrong or when we've suffered an injury. Thus, we can treat the injury right away before it gets worse. People with CIP are prone to accumulating injuries like burns or cuts simply because they don't feel that anything is wrong.
Scientists think that the reason CIP is so rare is because people who have it have short life expectancy rates. The fear of experiencing pain enables us to be more careful and avoid taking potentially fatal risks. If you don't have that fear, you're more likely to engage in highly risky and destructive behavior. Many of those who have CIP die young because they didn't know that what they were doing can kill them.
In 1932, physician George Dearborn reported the first known case of congenital insensitivity to pain. Over the next seven decades, however, scientists and medical professionals largely ignored the condition. Recently, though, more and more scientists have been taking an interest in CIP.
Understanding the inability to feel pain can lead to a better understanding of pain itself. This can help treat chronic pain conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS). According to the latest numbers, 2.3 million people around the world have MS. It's a disabling disease that can cause clinically significant pain.
Studying CIP has caused the emergence of new pain-related pathways. Scientists think that overactivity in the gene PRDM12 may have something to do with chronic pain. Further studies in this matter can lead to the development of new analgesics that don't have as many side effects.
However, there's only a small possibility that people who have congenital insensitivity to pain may eventually feel pain. Gene therapy is not yet developed or sophisticated enough to find treatment for people with CIP. Also, because the condition is so rare, it may be difficult to find financial backing for finding a treatment. Perhaps in the future, when scientists understand pain more, CIP will no longer be a lifelong curse.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!