A 51-year-old woman in Australia has a superpower of sorts, according to a report in the British Journal of Anaesthesia. The woman, named Jo Cameron, rarely feels any pain, no matter what’s going on with her body.
Doctors first became suspicious of Cameron after she reported to the hospital for orthopedic surgery at the age of 66. Cameron had previously been diagnosed with a condition called bilateral pantrapezial osteoarthritis. Patients with this form of osteoarthritis experience stiffness, pain, and swelling at the base of their thumbs. Some people with the condition experience pain on the sides of their palms that their thumbs are on. Pinching or gripping something or opening a jar can worsen patients’ pain, and the arthritis can also make the hands grow weaker.
To sum it up, the condition is painful, and Cameron’s case was pretty bad. “There was significant deformity and deterioration in the use of the right thumb,” according to the report, yet to her, it was “painless.”
To treat her arthritis, Cameron underwent a trapeziectomy, which involves the removal of a bone located at the base of the thumb. The procedure has a reputation for being painful—but when Cameron was discharged from the hospital the day after her operation, she rated her pain a zero on a scale of zero to 10.
Researchers then discovered Cameron’s “lifelong history of painless injuries, such as frequent cuts and burns, which were observed to heal quickly.” Cameron likened childbirth to the feeling of “a tickle” in an interview with the New York Times. After noticing the woman’s bizarre reactions to usually painful incidents, scientists set out to try to figure out why Cameron seemingly doesn’t feel pain. They now believe it comes down to a never-before-seen mutation in a gene called FAAH-OUT.
Suprisingly enough, Cameron had no idea that her life was unordinary until doctors started poking around to figure out why she wasn’t feeling pain. “I had no idea until a few years ago that there was anything that unusual about how little pain I feel—I just thought it was normal. Learning about it now fascinates me as much as it does anyone else,” she said in a press release.
With this new discovery, scientists now believe that targeting the FAAH-OUT gene could change the game in terms of pain prevention. The report is especially relevant right now, as doctors across the U.S. are desperate for treatments other than opioidsthat can lessen people’s post-surgery pain. “FAAH is therefore an attractive drug target for treating pain, anxiety, and depression,” according to the report, although, the paper’s authors warn, recent clinical trials studying FAAH inhibitors have failed.
It’s worth noting that there is potentially a downside to the gene mutation researchers discovered in Cameron: Pain is one of the ways your body signals to you that something’s not quite right and that you should probably get checked out. Hopefully that softens the jealousy you’ll feel after hearing about the woman who can’t feel pain.