Jo Cameron’s Life Without Pain; A Story of Rare Genetic Mutations
When Jo Cameron underwent a double hand surgery procedure, which would have left most people in excruciating pain, she left the hospital happy, vivacious, and in no pain whatsoever. At the time, Cameron was 65 years old and should have been even more susceptible to the surgery’s painful aftermath. Recognizing this anomalous behavior, doctors decided to investigate and found Cameron’s DNA contained two genetic mutations that made her unable to feel pain either physically or emotionally.
A Happy Genetic Mutation
Like anyone else, Cameron has been scraped, burned, and bruised throughout her life. But these physical injuries had little effect on her. After two surgeries, which left doctors baffled by her recovery — she needed only two aspirin the day after a hip-replacement surgery to deal with the pain — she was referred to a team of specialists at University College London’s Molecular Nociception Group (UCL).
Following a thorough DNA study, scientists at UCL published an unusual case report in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, revealing their findings of two genetic mutations:
Genetic Mutation #1:
This mutation affects the FAAH gene, which produces the enzyme responsible for breaking down anandamide — a neurotransmitter that’s been dubbed “the bliss molecule” (appropriately named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, "ananda") for its ability to bind to THC receptors, affecting mood, appetite, pain, and memory. When the FAAH genes break down anandamide, we experience physical and mental pain. But with a mutation like Cameron’s, the bliss molecule is allowed to preside, bringing out anandamide’s positive effects.
Surprisingly, this genetic mutation is not as uncommon as one may think, as about 20 percent of Americans are said to possess it. However, this percent of the populace doesn’t have Cameron’s second mutation, which compounds the effect and prevents her from experiencing any pain at all.
Genetic Mutation #2:
The discovery of this rare genetic mutation, named the FAAH-OUT gene, was said to be scientifically groundbreaking, as it was found to be a previously unidentified gene. As may be guessed from its name, the FAAH-OUT gene has a bearing on the FAAH gene, essentially turning down its activity. Working in concert, these two genetic mutations enabled Cameron to live her life unable to feel pain.
“I knew that I was happy-go-lucky, but it didn’t dawn on me that I was different. I thought it was just me. I didn’t know anything strange was going on until I was 65,” she told the The Guardian,
Development of New Pain-Relief Treatments
The search for reliable pain-relief treatments has been ongoing for millennia, with doctors and researchers historically relying on medications that target opioid receptors. But of course, this approach has led to an epidemic of addiction, abuse, and fatality, with more than 130 people now dying in the United States from opioid addiction daily.
Cameron’s genetic mutations bring the FAAH and FAAH-OUT genes into the spotlight, when it comes to pain-relief alternatives. While experimental drugs involving FAAH receptors previously failed, the FAAH-OUT discovery provides researchers more insight on how to target the endocannabinoid pathway involved in a variety of physiological and cognitive processes, including pain sensation.
To many sufferers who have turned to medical marijuana for relief, it is no surprise that working with endocannabinoid receptors should be considered a safe and successful means of ameliorating chronic pain. For years, individuals reeling from a range of maladies — from cancer to Crohn’s Disease to paralytic anxiety to suicidal depression — have fought to legalize marijuana as a powerful treatment option.
Is Being Unable to Feel Pain Necessarily Good?
While the prospect of dulling or totally eradicating pain may be alluring, it is important to bear in mind why all living beings experience pain in the first place: as a survival mechanism.
Pain is the catalyst for both physical and emotional lessons.
Experiencing physical pain alerts us to something being physiologically wrong. Just because one doesn’t have pain doesn’t mean he or she is immune to illness or injury. For example, if one sustains a wound and isn’t aware of it, left untreated, that wound could become infected and lead to something more serious like illness or even death; pain can be a biological warning pointing to a larger problem.
The same holds true for emotional pain. Serving as another survival mechanism, emotional pain generally runs along the spectrum of fear and happiness. Being highly in-tune with emotional well-being often results in increased self-awareness and when the balance shifts toward pain one is instinctually alerted to danger. Juxtaposed against agony or discomfort, a feeling of well-being also tends to foster a sense of safety.
The case of Cameron, who only realizes she’s burning herself on the oven when she smells singed flesh, but feels no pain to warn her, prompts a great philosophical question: What is life without pain?
Although pain can be regarded as a purely biological function, its absence seems to thwart the natural laws of the yin and yang. Can one truly know the height of happiness if he or she hasn’t known the depths of sorrow? While some may envy or dream of life without pain, it may be argued that everything in life is relative, which gives pain a rarely-appreciated purpose.
Check out Alan Watts’ explanation of the Zen Buddhist perspective of pain:
Guide to Alternative Medicine Part 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine
“When health is absent Wisdom cannot reveal itself, Art cannot become manifest, Strength cannot be exerted, Wealth is useless and Reason is powerless.”
— Herophilies, 300 B.C.
Just a decade ago, if patients wanted to explore unconventional treatment options they were on their own. Traditional health professionals generally didn’t encourage alternative therapies or treatments, and discouraged departures from allopathic treatment models such as drugs and surgery.
As research validates the efficacy of non-traditional treatment models, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ayurvedic medicine, massage and chiropractic adjustment, naturopathy, diet, and natural supplementation — even homeopathy and sound therapy — new branches of medicine emerge.
Integrative, Functional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine
The “integrative” medical model developed during the early 1990s but was formalized when the National Institute of Health (NIH) created the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This classification covered non-conventional treatment and research, and was the beginning of a slow recognition of alternative systems. Integrative models include consideration of a patient’s lifestyle, body, and mind, and how to promote well-being for the whole person rather than just diseases and their symptoms.
“Functional” medicine refers to holistic and alternative medical practices intended to improve overall functions of the body’s systems and explores individual biochemistry, genetics, and environment to determine underlying causes of disease.
According to the NIH, “complementary” medicine coordinates non-mainstream practices with conventional treatments. This has driven acceptance of alternative therapies such as TCM, diet, and nutraceuticals, or supplements.
Alternative medicine is any practice that falls outside conventional systems and is not combined with traditional treatments. For example, if patients choose Ayurvedic medicine, dietary changes, and supplementation to treat their cancer and exclude conventional therapies, they have entered the realm of alternative medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
“Those who disobey the laws of Heaven and Earth have a lifetime of calamities while those who follow the laws remain free from dangerous illness.”
— Huangdi, The Yellow Emperor, 2698–2598 BCE
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) claims to be the third-oldest medical system, preceded only by Egyptian and Babylonian medicine. Theories of TCM are believed to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 years old — likely older, predating written language.
The foundations of TCM are meridian channels and acupuncture points that conduct the movement of chi, and the five-element model correspondences to these points and channels. This five-element system of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water also applies to seasons, colors, sounds, sense organs, personality types, Chinese astrology, feng shui, the I Ching, and countless other aspects of Chinese culture and life.
The Five-Element System in Chinese Medicine
Called the Wu Xing, this five-element system defines relationships between the elements and considers them to be in continual active cycles wherever they are found. Mother/child, or generating relationships, are: wood fuels fire, fire forms earth (think of volcanic flow and ash) earth produces metal, metal carries water (buckets, pipes, etc.), and water feeds wood.
Conversely, there are antagonistic (father/child) relationships: fire melts metal, metal penetrates wood (ax, saw), wood separates earth (tree roots break soil), earth absorbs and directs water (river banks), and water extinguishes fire.
Chinese and Taoist doctors, called OMDs (oriental medicine doctors), see a patient through this lens of five-element relationships, along with yin and yang (passive and active) qualities. Organs are paired into male and female element families that include seasons, colors, compass directions, sense organs, emotions, and virtues. The female, or yin, organs are continually active — the Chinese say a woman’s work is never done — while male yang organs have periods of rest and activity. Element family qualities are:
- Metal: Lung (yin), large intestine (yang); season: autumn; color: white; direction: west; sense organ: nose; emotion: grief. When balanced, grief becomes the virtue of integrity.
- Water: Kidneys (yin), bladder (yang); season: winter; color: black; direction: north; sense organ: ears; emotion: fear. When balanced, fear becomes the virtues of poise, calm, and alert stillness.
- Wood: Liver (yin), gall bladder (yang); season: spring; color: green; direction: east; sense organs: eyes; emotion: anger. When balanced, anger becomes the virtue of kindness.
- Fire: Heart (yin), small intestine (yang); season: summer; color: red; direction: south; sense organ: tongue; emotion: rush/rudeness. When balanced, rushed rudeness becomes the virtues altruism and joy.
- Earth: Spleen (yin), stomach(yang); season: late summer; color: yellow; direction: center or middle; sense organ: mouth; emotion: worry and overthinking. When balanced, worry and obsession become the virtues of balance and equanimity.