The ‘painless woman’ helps us see how anxiety and fear fit in the big picture of pain

Imagine a life without pain. No toothache. No period pain. No arthritis.

A woman who feels no pain has been in the news recently, linked to a case study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

Jo Cameron came to the attention of researchers in her late 60s, after undergoing normally excruciating arthritis surgery with only paracetamol for post-recovery pain. Her life was full of more or less painless injury. Even childbirth barely fazed her.

Life without pain might seem like a blessing. But Cameron’s case – and how we understand what pain really means – is more complex than it first appears.

Pain is useful

People with rare genetic conditions can be born entirely insensitive to pain. They often self-injure when young, and the collective weight of injury and micro-traumas means they rarely live to adulthood.

That’s no surprise. Pain plays a vital protective role. It protects us from injury. It limits our motion when parts of our body are damaged. Without that inbuilt system, the weight of unhealed injuries can eventually…

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