While the human body is a wonder of evolution and biological complexity, things are not always perfect. When the body malfunctions or is attacked by other organisms, we end up with physical conditions that range from the commonplace (such as sore throats and upset stomachs) to the downright bizarre – like the ten mind-boggling medical conditions listed below.
10. Proteus Syndrome
This rare disorder likely only affects 120 people who are alive today. Recently discovered to be caused by a mutation in a particular gene, the disorder causes many tissues of the body to grow more than is expected, including skin, muscle, blood vessels and bones. The disorder is not normally visible at birth, but as the child ages various asymmetrical tumors and growths begin to develop, leading to a bizarre appearance. The famous “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick is thought to have had a form of Proteus syndrome, possibly in association with other conditions. His sad story proved that behind physical irregularities there is often a strong and courageous soul.
9. Methemoglobinemia (The Blue People of Kentucky)
While royalty were once thought to have blue blood running through their veins, medical science made clear that they’ve got the same runny red stuff as the rest of us. However, if you have the genetic condition known as congenital methemoglobinemia then your blood will be brown, due to an enzyme deficiency. Along with the risk of fatigue, exercise intolerance and other symptoms, methemoglobinemia can also lead – among Caucasians sufferers, at least – to one’s skin being blue. The Fugate family of Kentucky famously had a high incidence of this genetic condition, leading them to be known as the Blue Men of Kentucky.
8. Werewolf Syndrome (Hypertrichosis)
We all have bad hair days from time to time, but for those with hypertrichosis it’s a whole other story. In the most severe cases of hypertrichosis, the entire body can be covered with hair, from the face down to the toes, with only a few areas such as the palms unaffected. First recorded in the 17th century, hypertrichosis can be a congenital condition caused by genetic mutations or one that is acquired later on in life – due to the side effects of drugs, or as an accompanying effect of cancer and other conditions. Many of the most famous sideshow performers in history, such as “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Man,” have had hypertrichosis.
7. Aquagenic Urticaria (Water Allergy)
For most of us, there is nothing as relaxing as a nice hot shower or a dip in the ocean. Yet for those with aquagenic urticaria, something as simple as that – or even getting caught in the rain – could be an agonizing experience. Sufferers of this condition are allergic to water, with even their own sweat causing hives, itching and burning! Drinking water can cause difficulty breathing, and the pain and discomfort can continue for up to two hours. It is thought that those with this condition are allergic to a part of their own skin that dissolves in water and then causes histamine to be released from the skin. They certainly have no cause to be singin’ in the rain…
6. Lobster-Claw Syndrome (Ectrodactyly)
The opposable thumb may be what has allowed humans to succeed in the making and using of tools. Indeed, some people get along just fine with only a thumb and one finger. Ectodactyly describes the condition where some of the fingers of the hands or feet are missing or fused, leaving the appendage looking similar to a lobster’s claw. Caused by a variety of genetic factors, ectrodactyly may look strange but often has very little effect on the life of those with the condition. For instance, the guitarist for the French black metal band Noctural Depression has the condition, as did Mikhail Tal, a skilled pianist and chess world champion!
5. Myostatin-Related Hypertrophy (Superhuman Strength)
The substance myostatin is produced by our bodies to inhibit the growth of muscles. When the secretion of this substance is itself inhibited or the body fails to respond to it, muscles grow far larger than might otherwise be expected. Recently, two children were found to have been born with such superhuman strength. One, a German boy, had a genetic mutation that interfered with his production of myostatin, while Liam Hoekstra, an American boy, had a defect that stopped his muscles responding to it in the normal way. It’s not surprising that the world’s strongest toddler has got quite a lot of attention from documentary crews. Both these children are far stronger than their peers – real-life supermen in the making.
4. Progeria (Accelerated Aging)
Most of us would not expect to have to deal with hair loss, wrinkles, stiff joints and poor eyesight until well into old age, but for sufferers of progeria, a rare genetic condition, the symptoms of old age start appearing in infancy. Those with the condition have a characteristic appearance consisting of a large head, beaked nose and narrow face. Sadly, those with this rare condition rarely live past their early twenties. The disease was first described in 1886, and scientists believe that its study could give us insight into the process of aging.
3. CIPA (Inability to Feel Pain)
Next time you stub your toe, be thankful that you are able to feel the pain. Those with CIPA (which stands for congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis) have a congenital disorder that means they simply do not feel pain, hot or cold. They also do not sweat, meaning that they can easily overheat without even being aware of the temperature. Sufferers often injure themselves without even knowing it, especially as the condition is present from birth and small children will have no idea that they are harming themselves. Even just rubbing at eyes or chewing on gums can lead to serious infections and scarring. As with progeria, those born with this condition are unlikely to survive beyond 25, mainly due to complications caused by overheating.
2. Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis (Human Tree)
Many cultures have tales of sentient trees, and if you saw someone with epidermodysplasia verruciformis you might well believe that one of them had walked out of folklore and into real life. Those with the condition are genetically disposed to be prone to the effects of HPV, an infection that causes growths to appear on the skin. Eighty percent of us have such an infection, but do not display any symptoms. Those with the disorder can have so many lesions on their hands and feet that they can appear to be half-man, half-plant. This picture shows one of the most well known sufferers of the condition, Dede Koswara, who became famous after images of him were posted on the Internet. He has to endure twice-yearly surgeries to remove the growths, and on one occasion had 6kg (13 lbs) of warts removed from his body!
1. Human Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity (Semen Allergy)
The immune system can be a funny thing, with such benign substances as flowers, dust and certain foods causing allergic reactions. Some people’s bodies have even decided that semen is a substance that requires a serious immune response. Those with the condition experience blisters, swelling, hives and even problems breathing within 30 minutes of coming into contact with semen. Men can even develop an allergy to their own semen, with flu-like symptoms lasting for up to a week. But it’s not all bad news. Women suffering from the condition may build up a tolerance to their partner’s semen – provided they spend some quality time in bed together several times a week!