Dr. Joshua Prager was amazed when he saw the pain-defying performer known as Zamora.
"He stuck a spike through his face -- through his mouth and it went right through his chin," said Prager, director of the Center for the Rehabilitation of Pain Syndromes at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It was fascinating."
Zamora, whose real name is Tim Cridland, specializes in sword swallowing, fire walking, sleeping on beds of nails and other feats that bring him none of the wrenching pain you might expect. Zamora claims his sideshow tricks are a feat of his mind, but he might be one of the rare people born without the ability to feel pain.
Scientists now might be a step closer to unraveling the mystery behind Zamora's sideshow and closer to finding a way to help the rest of us live life without the sort of pain we don't need.
It sounds nice, doesn't it? A life without aches and pain? But pain can be useful -- and life without it can be dangerous.
Pain warns us when a hot pan handle is threatening to burn our skin, or when the nail scissors have slipped and cut our tender fingertips. Gabby Gingras, who has the rare condition where she is insensitive to pain, was 5 years old when she appeared on ABC News' "Good Morning America" last December. Her parents revealed how scary life becomes when someone -- especially a child -- lacks the ability to feel pain.
"Pain teaches, pain protects, pain can save you from a lot of bad things in life," said Trish Gringas, Gabby's mother.
Without pain, Gabby was without that protection.
"By the time Gabby was 2½, she had been hospitalized and been injured multiple times," said Gringas.
So while taking away pain can be good sometimes, taking it away completely also takes away our self-defenses. Pain protects us from inflicting serious pain upon ourselves in the first place and from further hurting ourselves so that we can heal. But new research may unlock a way for us to keep the pain we need and live without the pain we don't need.
Researchers have found a key mutation in one gene that robs people of their ability to feel pain, according to a study published in today's issue of the journal Nature.
Scientists still don't understand pain -- why we feel it at some times and not others, and why some people can tolerate different levels of pain. This research, which sheds a little light on the perception of pain, could send scientists on a path to find new and novel ways to treat it.
A team of researchers from across Pakistan and the United Kingdom launched their research into pain-free phenomena after getting to know a young street performer in Northern Pakistan who regularly walked on coals and pushed knives through his flesh but felt no pain. The child died shortly before his 14th birthday after jumping from a roof.
After the child's death, researchers found six otherwise normal children from three families. They also lived in Northern Pakistan and were all of the same Qureshi clan. None had ever felt any pain in any part of their bodies. They did not understand what pain felt like. All of them had gnawed their own lips and tongues as young teething children and had bruises and cuts. Many had unwittingly broken their bones.