Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIPA)

A life without pain.

My first thought upon hearing this was ‘that would be incredible…’

I have two older brothers and a tendency to stub my toe and walk into things meaning physical pain is a regular occurrence in my day.

When watching an episode of House, a character was introduced who had Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA). They kept saying how she couldn’t feel pain, and I just didn’t understand. This concept was completely alien to me and I think a lot of people have no idea this disease even exists, so here is a basic run through of the facts.

‘Congenital’ means that it is a disease that has acquired during foetal development. It is an inherited disorder of the nervous system, which prevents the sensation of pain, heat and cold.

What one has to come to realise is that pain is our warning signal. It is the alarm bells in our head telling us something is wrong or screaming at us to stop a certain activity. For example, when I was younger, out of curiosity I placed my hand on the iron to see what would happen. The burning sensation I felt made me quickly withdraw my hand from the iron, as I wanted the pain to stop. This response is what one would expect. However, a child with CIPA would not register the heat of the iron or the pain from the burn. This means they would not withdraw their hand, resulting in severe third degree burns.

From this example you can see how dangerous this condition can be, especially for a child.  Such a child may play with an iron or fire, pull out their hair, electrocute themselves or break a bone because there is no negative stimuli telling them to stop. Devastating injuries can occur due to such a condition.

So far all I have said is true for any sufferer of Congenital Insensitivity to Pain, however, there is a slight difference between this and Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. Congenital Insensitivity to Pain is due to a mutation in the genetic make up during the formation of nerve cells, whose job is to send signals of pain, heat or cold to the brain. The Anhidrosis portion of CIPA is caused by the under activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The Sympathetic Nervous System is a branch of the nervous system that becomes active during times of stress.  CIPA is characterised by a person not being able to feel pain or extreme temperatures, as they are unable to sweat. A sufferer of CIPA therefore cannot register if they are too hot or too cold, and due to their inability to sweat, they cannot properly regulate their body temperature. Injuries crop up that could easily be avoided if only they were able to feel pain. Due to the body not producing sweat, during hot weather a sufferer is likely to get a fever, as they are unable to cool themselves down, leading to hyperthermia.

This condition is rare, with very few documented cases, however it is important to acknowledge how serious a condition it is. Babies born with it usually die before the age of three years old due to overheating and these infants are particularly susceptible to hyperthermia. Those who beat the odds and survive infancy are lucky to reach the age of 25.

The daily routine of a sufferer involves checks of every inch of their bodies, to make sure they have no blisters, broken bones or anything abnormal or out of place. This constant fear of injury is important as if one were to trip; they might fall and feel nothing.  However, this trip may have resulted in a broken ankle, which if left untreated can lead to an infection which can in turn lead to higher body temperatures allowing more harmful bacteria and virus attacks to occur causing mental retardation. In some cases, when infections or viruses attack, blood vessels can swell and cause aneurysms, all of which a CIPA patient will not even feel.

There is no real treatment for CIPA as most treatments are hard to narrow down for this condition because each CIPA patient may have other conditions including the absence of sweat glands, nerve fibers, ulcers etc.

And so I guess to conclude, although we all see pain as a slight inconvenience in some instances, the thought of a life without pain is an experience I could live without and more than I think a lot of us could handle.

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2 Comments

Filed under Illness, Media

2 responses to “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIPA)

  1. Mary livingood

    If someone with the disorder of pain insensitivity is tasered what will the response be physiology beyond the absence of pain? Will being tasered cause the same reaction of incapacity or not?

  2. Suciu Dalina

    Hello,
    Can you please tell me how this illness can be detected?

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