When we hear the word “torture”, diseases don’t usually come to mind. Ordinarily, the initial image is that of medieval-type devices such as the stockade, the iron maiden, contraptions that stretch or tear a person apart, limb from limb, or the Chinese methods of water torture. As fascinating as it is to read about all the different ways people used to be punished and to drop our jaws in amazement at the sight of such historical exhibits, it’s not quite as often that we realize the magnitude of pain that victims of torture have undergone.
We’re incredibly fortunate that mainstream society has mostly abandoned these inhumane and otherwise repugnant forms of punishment. There are some countries on the other side of our big, blue marble, however, that still utilize things like water torture, stretching, public stoning, and dragging, and depending on the country’s cultural norms, a torturable offense is sometimes a freedom that we take for granted every day; such as a woman leaving her home without her husband to escort her. But, what happens when one is afflicted with a disease or condition which causes continuous severe pain? Most of the time, when intense or uncontrollable pain is involved, a person is plagued by an illness which they couldn’t avoid.
The following list introduces us to some of the most dreadfully hellacious diseases and conditions known to man. They are so terribly excruciating that they could be considered some of the most agonizing forms of torture both physically and mentally. While the names of some are recognizable as relatively common, others are so rare that we’re willing to bet this is the first you’ve ever heard of them. (And the last you’ll ever want to.)
15. Cystic Fibrosis
Quite the vexatious condition, Cystic Fibrosis is a genetically inherited disorder which primarily affects the lungs, yet is such a generous villain that it also torments the intestine, kidneys, liver, and pancreas. In addition to robbing a person of an average life expectancy past the age of 37, its effects include intensely painful coughing up of thick, sticky mucous due to very frequent chest infections, clubbing of fingers and toes, and inhibited growth and weight gain. Sure, many of us would gladly endure a little coughing if it meant we could eat whatever we wanted and not gain weight, but some CF patients have endured such forceful hacking that they have literally coughed up tiny pieces of lung tissue. One CF patient reports of her experience, “At times, the pain is so bad that it feels like my chest is being squeezed by the hand of God, and trying to breathe is the equivalent of attempting to suck oxygen through a mud-lined cocktail straw. I’m basically drowning slowly in my own mucous.”
14. Ebola Virus
With the largest outbreak to date just having ended in March of 2016 after nearly three years of people panicking anytime they came down with a cold, the Ebola Virus is still around, and if a person catches it, they had better pray a doctor identifies it as such, or they can look forward to a couple weeks of complete agony before finally dying. The onset is flu-like, with a fever and general weakness. Within just a few days of the appearance of symptoms, however, one can expect to experience grievous muscle, abdominal, and joint pain, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and internal bleeding. If death hasn’t already occurred as a result of massive dehydration, next comes the chest pain, shortness of breath, rashes, swelling, and confusion. If left untreated, almost 100% of victims perish, and a person’s best odds for survival are in the virus being identified in its earliest stages due to there not currently being any FDA- or DEA-approved treatments available. Managing the symptoms is the only thing that can be done.
13. Dercum’s Disease
Try to imagine that within any and all of the extra fat you have on your body, exists hundreds of differently-sized fatty tumors, each of which not only presses against nerve endings but are extremely painful to the touch. Dercum’s Disease is essentially a condition where more tumors appear over time, gradually causing more and more pain, and more still, the larger they grow. Yet another with no definitive cause, theories include trauma, mechanical pressure on the nerves, and nervous system malfunction. Managing the symptoms is the only way to get through it, and while surgery and pain medication often provide temporary relief, regrowth of tumors and tolerance to pain medication usually develops. Because each tumor is so sensitive to the touch, patients typically suffer day in and day out, struggling simply to wear clothing, bathe themselves, and even sleep.
12. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)
One of the most confounding disorders to have been discovered by the medical community is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The exact cause is still unknown, but the general consensus is that it is typically brought on by some sort of injury to a limb, whether it’s as minor as a needle puncture or as major as a fracture. So far, it is seen more commonly in the upper extremities but has been found in the lower as well. Because so little is known about this debilitating disease, there is currently no cure, and it is extremely difficult to manage the pain associated with the symptoms.
The affected area experiences a gamut of confusing signs that often leads to a patient being repeatedly misdiagnosed, lending a hand to irreparable nerve damage and blinding pain. After an injury hasn’t properly healed, a CRPS patient typically notices a change in color of the skin on the affected area (a reddish-purple) along with swelling and drastic differences in temperature to the touch— that is, if they can stand touching the limb at all. When electrical-type burning pain isn’t continuously flowing through the hand or foot, even the slightest brush of a feather against the skin holds the potential for a shockwave of pain that can cause the person to lose consciousness.
CRPS only worsens over time and often leads to the amputation of the affected extremity in the interest of improving one’s quality of life. This particular syndrome is thought to have a mind of its own, however, because, even after amputation, the condition has been known to “jump” to the opposite limb and start all over again.
Due to having developed vaccines, the U.S. hasn’t seen a Polio outbreak in decades. It recently made a comeback in a huge way over in Nigeria, and it is still seen in otherwise underdeveloped countries. This virus is somewhat methodical in nature. Since it is contracted through the mouth, it first attacks the throat and the intestinal tract, causing (what else?) severe pain and discomfort which gradually intensifies as the virus moves into the body’s lymphatic system where it multiplies rapidly, and finally makes its way into the bloodstream and central nervous system. As it begins to attack the spine and the brain, the nature of one’s sufferance increases drastically, paralysis occurs, and because it paralyzes the muscles and systems required to breathe, one is then slowly suffocated by their inability to take in oxygen. If identified quickly enough, symptoms can be managed through supportive treatment, but there is no cure.
10. Marburg Virus
If you thought Ebola was horrifying, the Marburg Virus gives it a serious run for its money. Mimicking many of the same outward symptoms, it is an extremely serious hemorrhagic fever which attacks the body’s ability to coagulate blood. There is no vaccine and no cure. It is such a dangerous virus, where death often occurs within two weeks of exposure, and the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention has listed it as a Category A Bioterrorism Agent— meaning, it’s so easy to spread, the CDC has concerns of it being used for biological warfare. Symptoms might sound like they belong to a run-of-the-mill flu virus because they include sore throat, headache, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, and joint and muscle pain, but don’t forget the internal bleeding. And while you’re at it, go ahead and multiply the misery by about ten.
9. Aquagenic Urticaria
Most of us have been bathing, swimming, and drinking water all our lives without any adverse effects. A not-so-lucky individual with Aquagenic Urticaria, on the other hand, is unable to do any of the above without enduring absolute and complete torment. They’re essentially allergic to water. With each tiny droplet comes a stinging, stabbing sensation which results in a blistery rash that they must then tend to in order to prevent infection. There is no known cause, and only limited treatments are available for those struck by this incredibly rare disease.
Your lovable author happens to suffer from this one. Fibromyalgia, while not a death sentence, is sometimes so debilitating that the sufferer wishes for death. It is characterized by chronic, severe widespread pain and increased sensitivity to pressure on nerves in general. Scientists have theorized that its cause is a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but have not yet established anything concrete. Fibromyalgia is very difficult to treat because it is often associated with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic pain disorders, frequently being misdiagnosed in its early stages. Pain is sometimes so intense that it causes momentary blackouts and hinders one’s ability to physically function in daily life.
7. Trigeminal Neuralgia
The trigeminal nerves run along either side of the face from just above the ear into three branches; one near the eye, one toward the nose, and one toward the lip and jaw area. In patients with Trigeminal Neuralgia, they experience sudden sharp, electric-like spasms through the nerves, typically on one side of the face. They occur randomly but are also triggered by simple, light brushes to the skin on the affected side of the face. This disease is ranked in the medical community as one of the top ten most painful, and though it can be managed with surgery and medication, there is no cure. A person who suffers from Trigeminal Neuralgia is often unable to shave, apply makeup, or even wash their face without enduring hellish discomfort.
Most of us know by now that AIDS is the virus which develops when the HIV virus is left unmanaged and untreated. What most of us don’t know is just how painful the effects of this virus truly are. Once a person has been diagnosed with AIDS, their immune system has weakened to the point where catching a cold or getting a splinter may spell death, and the severity of any illness’ effects are amplified by their body’s lack of ability to fight it off. People who have the virus are able to live much longer now than they used to, but it is still a very slow and very agonizing path to passing away.
Addiction is, in fact, a disease; and an extremely painful one, at that. The above photo depicts mugshots of a repeat methamphetamine offender— one at the early stage of her addiction, and another after having lost herself in the addiction. Having a dependency on any substance causes physical, mental, and emotional pain, most of which manifests during one’s withdrawal from the substance in question. Some have described their addictions as them being “a prisoner of” their substance of choice, and it’s a prison from which they cannot escape. Awareness has been raised over the past couple of decades in hopes of helping addicts find cost-effective rehabilitative treatment and supportive counseling to aid in the prevention of relapse, however, unlike the other diseases on this list, an addict must have the necessary willpower to seek treatment, or they will ultimately continue the vicious and painful cycle which eventually leads to their demise.
4. Paroxysmal Extreme Pain Disorder
Paroxysmal Extreme Pain Disorder is an extremely rare disease which usually begins to take its toll while a child is still in utero. As its name suggests, extreme pain is the main offender and involves the eyes, jaw, and rectum, and produces a red, flushed appearance during flares. Originally called Familial Rectal Pain Syndrome because it primarily caused horrendous pain in the rectal and abdominal region during elimination, this winner of a disease has proven itself worthy of reclassification through the discovery that other areas of the body are also affected. So far, only 15 known cases of PEPD exist, but in each of the 15 cases, symptoms have persisted throughout their lives with very little relief. There is no known cure, and while a few patients have found the medication Carbamazepine to be slightly helpful, on the whole, doctor’s just don’t know how to treat it.
3. Cancrum Oris
Just as painful as it is shocking in appearance (the above image is an extremely mild version of the disease; if you have a very, very strong stomach, Google it), Cancrum Oris is a gangrenous disease that eats away at the tissue of the face and genitals. It kills 80% of the people it targets, and though it’s treatable with antibiotics and improved hygiene and nutrition, once the damage is done, surgery is the only way to treat the already affected areas. There are several suspected causes and it only occurs in the poorest regions of the world. Although it doesn’t register as high on the physical pain scale as some of the others, it ranks toward the top in terms of the mental and emotional pain that it causes.
2. Peripheral Neuropathy
Having causes that range from genetic to metabolic and toxic, Peripheral Neuropathy is a disease which affects healthy nerve function. There are almost as many ways to treat it as there are potential causes, which is a blessing and a curse to those afflicted. Frequently, it’s difficult to determine the exact cause, which hinders the ability to find an exact treatment, leaving patients to grapple with acute and occasionally aggressive needle-type pain throughout the affected region. As with most of the previous entries, it can be managed, but there is no cure.
1. Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic Cancer takes the top spot on this list for a number of reasons. Not only is it devastating to receive the diagnosis, it’s devastating to have to break the news to your loved ones who are then also shocked and utterly dismayed. The physical and emotional pain associated with having and treating cancer is incredibly taxing and the treatment occasionally kills the patient more quickly than the cancer itself would have. Pancreatic Cancer has the highest mortality rate of all known cancers with only 7% of those diagnosed still alive five years after treatment. It’s this particular cancer which has robbed the world of actors such as Patrick Swayze, Joan Crawford, and Donna Reed, as well as Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, astronaut Sally Ride, and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. All cancers, their respective treatments, and the end-stages are the most agonizing forms of torture because the effects are felt by everyone in the patient’s life. It probably goes without saying that there is currently no magical antidote, but perhaps one day, as we hope for all other terrible diseases, science or nature will find that elusive cure.