We often hear stories about how the blind and deaf adjust to living in a world that's organized around seeing and hearing, but we rarely hear about people who are missing one of the other major senses. Just like sight and sound, the sense of touch and the ability to feel pain are abilities you can lose.
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At first blush, the idea of living a pain-free life may sound appealing. No stubbed-toe agony, no menstrual cramps that take your breath away, no searing ouch when you're learning to ski, ice skate or scale mountains — because we all know it's inevitable that you will fall down, and hard. And let's not even mention the pain of childbirth, the agony of a broken bone or the misery of a migraine.
But living a pain-free life is incredibly challenging — even dangerous. Parents with babies and young children who don't experience pain have to be vigilant. It's so easy for a child to get hurt, and there's rarely any way of knowing that anything has occurred. Young kids don't know not to chew their tongues when their teeth come in (an issue that is apparently so common for kids who don't feel pain that some have their teeth removed), or not to poke their own eyes out.
CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis) is a rare genetic disorder caused by a recessive gene passed onto a child from both parents. It doesn't disable the children in any way; it simply interrupts the growth of the tiny nerves that communicate heat and cold sensations to the brain. So many kids with the disorder are completely typical otherwise, although the National Institutes for Health report: "About half of people with CIPA show signs of hyperactivity or emotional instability, and many affected individuals have intellectual disability."
Kids with CIPA can be described as fearless, but that's not a compliment — it's literal. This disorder can be life-threatening. “Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain,” the mother of one child who has CIPA, told NBC News.
Older kids can be taught to use other clues (like the sight of blood) as an indication that they've hurt themselves, but what if the signs are not readily visible? Not feeling the pain, say, of a swollen appendix led at least one CIPA sufferer to almost die from one that burst. It's easy for a person with CIPA to eat foods that are way too hot for consumption, get in a too-hot bath, or, in the case of Gabby in the video above — to severely hurt her back and have no idea she'd done it.
And because hot and cold can't be detected or distinguished by the body, the body doesn't turn on skin-cooling sweat glands, and that can lead to easy overheating.
While it's true that pain isn't pleasant, it also serves a real and important purpose, allowing our bodies to tell our brains when there's a problem. Without that system, life may be pain-free, but it's certainly more dangerous.