Mother Nature's Kings of Pain
By LAUREN CAHOON
ABC News Medical Unit
Feb. 26, 2008
Share Certain members of the animal kingdom have a talent for torture, as those of us who have been unlucky enough to experience it can attest.
Maybe you're swimming at the beach, hiking in the wilderness, or just cleaning out your basement — suddenly you're on fire, dancing or doubled over, staring at an almost invisible wound and wondering how something so small could hurt so horribly.
We have compiled a Top 10 list (in no particular order) of some of the most excruciating stings and bites nature has on offer. Some are potentially deadly, some are not. All are absolutely worth avoiding.
These inch-long insects are named after their sting; the pain is likened to being shot. Most scientists claim the creature has the most excruciating sting of all insects.
"I have had some of the most painful experiences I've ever had from bullet ant stings," said Randy Morgan, curator of invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians at the Cincinnati Zoo. "For two or three hours, it felt like people had just hauled off and whacked me with a baseball bat. It's a deep, aching pain."
The bullet ant sting scores highest on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a rating created by entomologist Justin Schmidt, director of the Southwestern Biological Institute, which compares the ouch factors of different insects.
How does he know how much these insects' stings hurt? He's willingly endured each of them himself.
Schmidt's rating gives a poetic description of the bullet ant's sting: "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch rusty nail in your heel."
An indigenous tribe in the South America (the bullet ant's home territory) requires their young men to pass a harrowing trial with bullet ants — the boys must wear special mitts that have been lined with hundreds of the angry insects. Not only must the youths endure the stinging treatment for 10 minutes at a time, they must repeat the process 20 times over again.
The creature's tentacles discharge tiny needles into the victim's skin; each needle contains a cocktail of pain-inducing ingredients that make it "the most painful sting. There is no question about it," according to Dr. Joseph Burnett, past chairman of dermatology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "The bullet ant is nothing compared to this."
Rattlesnakes and their relations
Van Wallach of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology has had several viper bites; the worst one, he said, "came from an African bush viper. It felt like somebody had a blowtorch and was burning you inside your arm. … It went on for three straight days before I had any relief."
"The physical wound can be pretty intense," said Jon Hoech, director of husbandry operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "It's extremely painful, like getting punctured with an eight-penny nail. Also, it's like a cat scratch, it can carry a lot of bacteria." On top of the sizeable puncture wound comes a dose of toxins that cause instantaneous pain.
"There are scorpions in the Old World that have extremely painful stings," said Don Boyer. "It gets worse and worse and worse." These types of scorpions — found in Africa and Asia — can be dangerous as well as painful. However, in the Southwestern United States, the Arizona Bark Scorpion doesn't pose much of a threat to healthy adults. It just means extreme pain.
Leslie Boyer, who is medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, said that the tiny sting will "send shooting sensations up your arm." If you're clumsy enough to tap or bump that finger on anything, the pain instantly amplifies.
Spitting cobras have perfected the art of defense by shooting venom into an attacker's eyes, which creates a blinding, burning pain. Like many other pain-inducing animals, the reason for the agony is to keep attackers away, rather than to stage an offensive.
Van Wallach was unfortunate enough to get the spitting treatment from a cobra in the Philippines. "It is excruciating," he said. "The only way I could relieve it was to pour milk into my eye about every 15 minutes. I was blind for about four to six hours."
Tarantual Hawk Wasp
According to sting expert Schmidt, the tarantula hawk rates just below the agonizing bullet ant.
"When that one when it hits you, it almost feels like you've been hit by a lightning bolt," said Schmidt. "You'll be screaming and writhing in agony. … It feels like every gland in your body is purged of all its hormones, you'll feel absolutely drained from the experience."
The stonefish, found in the rocky, shallow waters of tropical oceans, has several extremely sharp spines along its back. Hapless waders can easily mistake the well-camouflaged fish for a rock or hunk of coral — and if they step on the animal, the spines will puncture the skin and inject a complex and deadly venom.
The pain from the sting is described as instant and intense. One victim described the experience on an online aquarium enthusiasts' forum:
"I got spiked on the finger by a stonefish in Australia … never mind a bee sting. … Imagine having each knuckle, then the wrist, elbow and shoulder being hit in turn with a sledgehammer over the course of about an hour. Then about an hour later imagine taking a real kicking to both kidneys for about 45 minutes so that you couldn't stand or straighten up. I was late 20s, pretty fit physically and this was the tiniest of nicks. Got sensation back in my finger after a few days but had recurrent kidney pains periodically for several years afterwards."
Black Widow Spider
Although 95 percent of the spiders' bites are trivial, if you're unlucky enough to get nipped by a large, healthy black widow where your skin is thin, the experience can be excruciating.
Leslie Boyer described the time when a rural doctor called her up about an athletic 20-something man who had been bitten.
"The patient had looked at him and said 'It hurts too much to breathe,' and then he just stopped," she said. "To be awake enough to say that, and then willingly stop breathing — that's got to be intense pain."
Cecil Schwalbe, ecologist with the U.S. geological survey, was bit by a Gila monster while handling one in an outreach demonstration in front of 200 people. He lists it as the most painful bite in his experience.
"My finger was on fire, the wave of fire moved slowly up my body," Schwalbe said. Within five minutes I turned pasty green and went into shock. … I had pain in my kidneys, blood in my urine. … All of my sphincters in my body were trying to relax. It was on my finger for two minutes and it bit me five times — every bite went right to the bone."
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