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Why Does Getting Hit in the Testicles Hurt So Much?

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More than any other bodily injury, getting hit in the testicles is probably what every man dreads most. Of all the soft, fleshy spots on the human body, none register the same kind of incapacitating, end-of-the-world pain as the family jewels.

What causes such inconceivable pain? Well, for starters, a shot to the balls is just like any other physical strike to the body: because of nerves, it’s gonna hurt. Unlike most other parts of your body, though, your scrotum lacks protection in the form of bones, large muscle mass, and fat. The testes are just wee little glands, and they’re going to absorb the whole force of the blow all on their own.

Another thing that makes a ball shot so painful is the same thing that makes almost every other sensation down there so much fun. Your groin has a ridiculously high number of sensory nerve endings, and such generous innervation makes good and bad touches alike very noticeable sensations.

And the pain doesn’t just stay down there in the scrotum. It insists on radiating throughout the groin and up into the abdomen (and, psychically, out to every other dude standing within a few feet), leading to a weird stomach ache. This is the work of a phenomenon known as referred pain, which is when a sensation originating at one spot travels along a nerve root to other parts of the body and is perceived as happening there, too. It’s the same thing that’s going when you get an ice cream headache. In this case, the pain starts in your balls and travels up the perineal and pudendal nerves and the spermatic plexus, which cover real estate in the groin and abdomen, around the spine and even a little ways down into the anus, to make it feel like death has come for most of your lower body.

Location, Location, Location

Why is such a sensitive and delicate body part just hanging there in the open? The placement of the testicles is inconvenient, but absolutely necessary. The testes’ job is to produce sperm, and sperm are very fragile. They’re extremely sensitive to high and low temperatures, and must be kept away from the rest of the body and relatively exposed to maintain the right climate. They can handle human body temps for only one to four hours, or the average amount of time it takes them to travel through the female reproductive tract and fertilize an egg. Internal testes or any type of significant shielding for them would heat them up too much, too early and make them drop out of the race well before reaching the egg, rendering them useless.

The scrotum isn’t just a dumb sack swaying in the breeze, though. In deference to our genetic interests, our bodies subconsciously thermoregulate our balls by flexing the cremasteric muscle and drawing the scrotum up closer to the body when it gets too cold and dropping it when it’s hot. This optimized, on-the-fly sperm storage is precise enough that each testicle can be repositioned independent of its twin in order to get the temperature just right, explaining their sometimes asymmetrical dangle.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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