What The "Painless Woman" Can Teach Us About Anxiety, Pain

By Kelly Burch 04/09/19

A woman with a rare insensitivity to pain may be able to help researchers develop new drugs to treat pain and anxiety.

painless woman enjoying a summer's day

Jo Cameron experiences less pain, less anxiety and less depression than most people—but for the first 65 years of her life, she had no idea she was so unique. 

"I was just a happy soul who didn't realize there was anything different about me,” Cameron said, according to ABC News.

It wasn’t until Cameron was in the hospital for a normally very painful surgery that doctors realized she had a much higher than normal pain tolerance. After learning more about her life that has been almost entirely free from pain, researchers began studying Cameron. The results were recently published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

Researchers found that Cameron has mutations in her DNA that affect her body’s cannabinoid system, and thus how she experiences pain. Cameron has low levels of the enzyme FAAH (fatty-acid amide hydrolase), which breaks down anandamide, a cannabinoid neurotransmitter, Colin Klein explained in The Conversation

“Since Cameron doesn’t break down anandamide, it accumulates in her blood,” Klein writes, pointing out that animal studies show that elevated anandamide decreases pain and anxiety. “So she not only feels less pain, she also feels less anxiety about the pain she does feel.”

This is consistent with what researchers found. 

“[Cameron] also reported never panicking, not even in dangerous or fearful situations, such as in a recent road traffic accident,” they wrote. 

Cameron’s condition isn’t without negative side effects—she often is forgetful, and she doesn’t have pain to alert her when something is wrong with her body. "It would be nice to have warning when something's wrong," she said. 

Researcher James Cox said that cases like Cameron’s can help the medical community better understand pain, anxiety, and how they interact. "People with rare insensitivity to pain can be valuable to medical research as we learn how their genetic mutations impact how they experience pain," he said. 

Understanding how FAAH interacts with the cannabinoid system could help researchers develop new drugs. 

“FAAH is therefore an attractive drug target for treating pain, anxiety, and depression, although recent clinical trials with FAAH inhibitors were unsuccessful,” they wrote.

Despite that, researcher Devjit Srivastava said that Cameron’s case is very important. 

"The implications for these findings are immense," Srivastava said. "The findings point towards a novel painkiller discovery that could potentially offer post-surgical pain relief and also accelerate wound healing. We hope this could help the 330 million patients who undergo surgery globally every year."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.