Health · Word of the week

Word of the week: congenital

A few years ago one of my favourite cousins in Ireland had an operation to remove a “congenital wart”. We joked about how bad that sounded but we knew that it wasn’t. “Congenital” means, simply, that she was born with it. It doesn’t mean that it was big, painful or dangerous, just that she had had it since birth. (And the operation was straightforward, with no complications.)

When I was in my 20s I didn’t know what congenital meant. There was a newspaper article (which is how we read about current affairs back then) about two children born with a “congenital inability to feel pain”. I showed it to the friend I was visiting and said something like, “Wow, a congenital inability to feel pain. That sounds really bad.” His flat-mate, a trainee vet, put me right on this, told me that “congenital” just meant that they were born with it. It’s a bad thing to be born with though. It might sound good, not being able to feel pain, but most people with the condition die young, their joints worn out from over-use because there are no pain signals to temper how they are used.

The proper term for the disorder is “congenital analgesia”. There’s no way for me to track down that original article (it might have been in the Guardian, or the Times, or the Independent, sometime in the 1980s) but this 2012 piece from the BBC website gives an insight into the condition. If you haven’t come across the idea before it might make you think of pain in a whole new way. It has a purpose. Our lives would be shorter without it.


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