Mother Nature's Kings of Pain

"I got spiked on the finger by a stonefish in Australia … never mind a bee sting. … Imagine having each knuckle, then the wrist, elbow and shoulder being hit in turn with a sledgehammer over the course of about an hour. Then about an hour later imagine taking a real kicking to both kidneys for about 45 minutes so that you couldn't stand or straighten up. I was late 20s, pretty fit physically and this was the tiniest of nicks. Got sensation back in my finger after a few days but had recurrent kidney pains periodically for several years afterwards."

Other stories describe sting victims wanting to have their stung limb amputated from their body.

Hoech of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked closely with the stonefish, and he agreed that the animal "is definitely at the top of the list" of the most pain-producing creatures.

Black Widow Spider

"I never want a bad black widow bite," said Leslie Boyer, referring to the poisonous spider found all over the southern United States.

Although 95 percent of the spiders' bites are trivial, if you're unlucky enough to get nipped by a large, healthy black widow where your skin is thin, the experience can be excruciating.

Leslie Boyer described the time when a rural doctor called her up about an athletic 20-something man who had been bitten.

"The patient had looked at him and said 'It hurts too much to breathe,' and then he just stopped," she said. "To be awake enough to say that, and then willingly stop breathing — that's got to be intense pain."

The black widow bite doesn't hurt initially, as the fangs are small. But an hour and a half later, the venom, which contains a toxic ingredient that interacts with the body's muscles, causes extreme cramping throughout the body.

"Imagine every muscle in a spasm at the same time, and they won't relax for days," said Leslie Boyer.

But people shouldn't revile the black widow, she stressed. "I have them on my porch and in my house," she said. "They never leave their webs, you always know where they are — they're better than a bug zapper."

Gila Monster

This slow-moving lizard from the Southwest United States packs a surprisingly painful bite.

Cecil Schwalbe, ecologist with the U.S. geological survey, was bit by a Gila monster while handling one in an outreach demonstration in front of 200 people. He lists it as the most painful bite in his experience.

"My finger was on fire, the wave of fire moved slowly up my body," Schwalbe said. Within five minutes I turned pasty green and went into shock. … I had pain in my kidneys, blood in my urine. … All of my sphincters in my body were trying to relax. It was on my finger for two minutes and it bit me five times — every bite went right to the bone."

The reasons for the pain are twofold. First, the Gila monster has very sharp teeth, each about a quarter of an inch long. When the animal bites, it chomps down hard — and doesn't let go. Stories are told of bite victims rushing to the hospital with the lizard still attached.

Second, Gila monsters are equipped with specialized venom, full of compounds that break down collagen and vein membranes, a cocktail that is "built to cause inflammation, and just cause pain — it's all about pain," said Beck. On top of the pain, the venom's chemicals cause sweating, diarrhea, vomiting and a drop in blood pressure.

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