Got pain? These three pain conditions suck worse than yours.

Oh humans. We vile creatures, who feel better when others are doing comparatively worse. Rest assured, reading about these three painful conditions will not make you feel permanently better. But it might give you a bit of temporary perspective.

Cluster Headaches

This is one of the worst pain conditions you can have. The difference between migraines and cluster headaches is like the difference between a canoe and a cruise ship. You do not want a cruise ship to run over you, but you will probably survive a canoe encounter.

Cluster headaches affect about 1 out of 1000 people. The pain is sudden, sharp, and extremely intense. It centers around your eye, which is not an area where you expect debilitating pain. These headaches can happen daily for weeks and then go into remission for months, or follow a variety of other cycles. Like another painful condition, trigeminal neuralgia, the cause of cluster headaches is related to pressure of blood vessels on sensitive nerves.

Amongst the available treatments are inhalation of pure oxygen, narcotics, and botox. But if you have cluster headaches, you are interested in not just treatment, but also prevention. And no one knows for sure what causes them. The nickname of this type of headache is “suicide headache”. That has a very very bad connotation. But keep in mind that medical science is progressing extremely fast, and a variety of types doctors may be able to help if you have these headaches. Shop around, if possible.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

This condition is, in my opinion, the worst. What happens is that, essentially, your nervous system goes haywire after an injury. When 99.9% of people sprain their ankle, it swells up and then heals over the coming days and weeks. But sometimes, the nervous system continues to “wind up” after its initial reaction and never stops sending pain signals. This can be accompanied by swelling, discoloration, changes in sensation, and terrible terrible pain. The pain is typically continuous and can have a burning nature. Some people are so sensitive that a slight breeze causes tremendous pain on their skin, and they can’t wear clothing on that area.

CRPS is a strange condition because it can range from fairly mild to absolutely debilitating. I learned about it after watching House MD, in an episode where Dr. House got shot and forced himself into a coma using a hallucinogenic drug called ketamine. He miraculously wakes up pain-free for the first time in years. Being a curious sort, I looked up whether this was possible. Holy schnikies, it is! One of the only treatments for CRPS is to use ketamine, either by IV, through your nose, or during a coma (eeek!) to sort of “reset” your nervous system. The coma is not legal in the US though, so you have to pay around $30,000 to have it done in Germany or Mexico. But even this terrible condition has some promise in research…vitamin C has been found to perhaps have a role in preventing CRPS from developing after an injury.

Locked-in Syndrome

Okay, so this isn’t technically a pain condition. But let me explain myself. Imagine that you wake up one day and you can’t move. You can’t move anything, at all. No speaking, no wiggling a finger or toe, no facial expressions. And this condition never (well, almost never) goes away. This is locked-in syndrome, a rare form of quadriplegia that is chronicled in the movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, and which hopefully you never develop. It can happen after a stroke, brain injury, medication overdose, or a variety of other things. But it is very rare, so try not to worry too much.

So why did I include this on the list? You lose your ability to move, but retain your ability to feel pain! And because this can happen from an accident, you better believe that there are patients who have locked-in syndrome but can’t fully express the pain they feel because of difficulty in communicating (which is done by eye blinking if you happen to retain that ability). Also, laying on your back all day is bound to lead to muscle and joint aches. So I say…if you ever know of someone with this condition, be as nice as humanly possible to them and visit them as often as you can. I did read a heartening story of a patient with locked-in syndrome who found a girlfriend, which some people found ludicrous but I found completely and totally awesome.

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