Have you ever wondered how much pain you could endure? It’s not such a merry subject to muse upon, but you can be sure, whatever kinds of physical distress you have imagined, someone somewhere on the planet at one point in time had to suffer it. When imagining such gruesome scenarios we often invoke methods of torture, the grim fiction of Hollywood films depicting ad hoc tooth extraction or the fingernails being ripped from their rightful place. We might also cast our minds back to ancient and medieval history when humans were burnt at the stake, had their limbs ripped-off, or their hearts ripped out. Today we will focus not so much on those macabre aspects of human nature, but on pains anyone of us could suffer today. Join us on this excruciating tour of how much we can hurt in this episode of The Infographics Show, The Most Painful Things a Human Can Experience.
First of all, we should talk a little about pain itself. We all deal with it differently, while some studies show men seem to tolerate it better. For a long time it was thought to be the opposite, as women’s bodies and minds are equipped to deal with child birth. The outcome of the studies was also said to be the result of men tolerating more pain because of prescribed social notions of masculinity and not necessarily having a natural endowment to tolerate more pain. How do we even find subjects to test pain limits so we can quantify pain? Would you be part of a study group that allows researchers to burn you?
Well, subjects at Cornell University did just that in the 1940s in what was called ‘Studies on Pain: A new method for measuring pain threshold’. Childbirth was measured against burning, with a pregnant woman being burned as she was giving birth. Tech media Gizmodo writes, “As the heat blistered her hand, the subject helped establish a value of pain intensity encumbered during childbirth.” The problem was, in other studies on pain people just couldn’t take the level of pain further and so it couldn’t be measured. There have been various scales to measure pain but none are conclusive. For instance, some people might pass out quicker than others, due to excessive pain. This happens when the stress on the body affects the blood flow to the brain. You pass out, and your body gives you a well-deserved break. While you are out, your brain starts releasing serotonin and endorphins so you’ll wake up in a better state. Going into shock is quite common, so if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to see anyone lose a limb or limbs, you might not see them screaming. The brain has its own painkiller system when you are in dire need of it. While we cannot measure the most painful experience, we do tend to agree on what are the worst kinds of pain.
Perhaps being burned is one thing we all fear, especially the specter of being engulfed in flames. There are different types, or grades, of burns, and perhaps some good news is that the worse the burn the lesser pain you might have due to the damage to your nerve endings. So fourth degree burns that have basically barbequed you and sent you into shock may not be as painful as third or even second degree burns. Most pain victims will tell you the worst part is the treatment. “One of the worst realizations is that the pain only gets worse when the fire is out,” said one man on a Reddit thread discussing burns. Another agreed, “The really excruciating part is the treatment.”
Some insect stings in fact are supposed to hurt as much as burns. Of all the stings out there, the bullet ant delivers the worst of the worst. Dr. Justin O Schmidt, who created the insect sting pain index, put the bullet ant at the top, stating that being stung feels like “fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.” A Brazilian tribal initiation asks tribe members to put their hand into a bullet ant glove. See for yourself online how one gutsy westerner deals with it….which is not very well.
What looks even worse is a cluster headache. Women who have experienced childbirth have said they are the worst pain imaginable. They happen on one side of the head and can last up to three hours. Many television shows have illustrated the absolute agony people can go through, filming sufferers screaming and rolling around on the floor. According to the Migraine Trust, they only affect about 1 or 2 out of every 1,000 people, but the bad news is that they are thought to be incurable. Victims won’t die or even suffer anything other than the pain itself. Writing on one treatment forum, a sufferer of these headaches said heroin, morphine or OxyContin didn’t help him at all. Some progress has been made using alternative, and mostly illegal treatments, such as Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. According to the Daily Beast, LSD’s discoverer Albert Hoffman was actually looking for a way to treat headaches and migraines.
Britain’s National Health Service has done us all a favor and put together a list of what it says are the world’s worst conditions in terms of pain. You might be surprised to hear that above cluster headaches, or cancer, a heart attack, gout, the NHS puts shingles. Shingles occurs when the virus that caused the itchy nightmare of Chicken Pox reactivates. Like a Hollywood horror movie sequel, when it comes back again, it’s worse than before.
A more common painful condition is kidney stones. A Reddit thread asked people to state what the most painful thing they had ever experienced was, and quite a few people said kidney stones. The stones form when calcium and other substances in your urine build up. They can be as big as a ping pong ball, and if they break up it can cause intense pain as you try to pass them through the urinary tract. If it’s too big, it can be blasted into smaller pieces using shockwave therapy. It’s probably better you don’t get to that stage, so drinks lots of water every day.
You might be too fit or young for kidney stones, but that won’t prevent bone breaks. We’ve all seen sportsmen with flapping limbs looking more stunned than in pain. But what is the most painful bone to break? A broken fibula might only hurt for a few days, but a broken rib could cause weeks of nagging pain and sleepless nights. According to American football players and forums detailing the pain of broken bones, the second worse break you can have is a ruptured Achilles. Former Oakland football star Ronald Curry described the pain as “instantly excruciating with the months to follow significantly worse.” The winner on the worst break list though was the femur, the biggest bone in the body.
Stubbing your toe on a rusty nail could also be disastrous. There’s a good reason we keep our tetanus vaccinations up to date. The CDC reports that hardly anyone dies of tetanus due to the shots we have, but sporadic cases do happen from time to time. It starts with lockjaw, and then soon your whole body is suffering from spasms and locking up. According to the WHO, hundreds of cases happen each year around world. If not treated early, Tetanus will kill between 10 and 20 percent of its victims.
And what doesn’t kill you, might not necessarily make you stronger. Many people on pain forums state that tooth abscesses are the worst, although one condition apparently tops it. This is called trigeminal neuralgia, a disease that affects around 1 in every 15-20,000 people and has been dubbed the ‘suicide disease’ as that’s what it will make you want to do. People have said it’s like lightning striking you in the face, describing the ‘shock attacks’ when the skull’s largest nerve is stressed. A 63-year-old woman from Wales said in an interview it is “the worst pain known to man” stating that neither treatment nor pain drugs have done anything to help her with this lifelong disease. “My head goes back and I can hear screaming,” she said, adding, “It’s only later that I realize that it was me that was screaming out in pain.” The Trigeminal Neuralgia Association in the UK called it the most painful condition in the world. In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that 27 percent of sufferers kill themselves.
While a few of the pains above are said to be worse than childbirth, it comes very high on the pain scale. Thankfully, not as high as the suicide disease, as a lot of children would be motherless. In one interview, a 49-year old woman said the final push is not the worst part. The labor bit she said is like something “squeezing the crap out of your guts on a timer for what seems like eternity until you’re delirious with exhaustion.” Others have described it as similar to pooping a watermelon or bowling ball. The worse thing is, it’s probably the most common and natural of intense pains.
So, what’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced? Let us know in the comments!