Why Does Getting Hit in the Testicles Hurt So Much?

pkripper503, istock/getty images plus
pkripper503, istock/getty images plus

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.

10 Facts About Your Tonsils

iStock/Neustockimages
iStock/Neustockimages

Most of us only become aware of our tonsils if they become swollen or infected. But these masses of lymphatic tissue in the mouth and throat are important immunological gatekeepers at the start of the airways and digestive tract, grabbing pathogens and warding off diseases before they reach the rest of your body. Here are some essential answers about these often-overlooked tissues—like what to do when your tonsils are swollen, and whether you should get your tonsils removed.

1. People actually have four kinds of tonsils.

The term tonsils usually refers to your palatine tonsils, the ones that can be seen at the back of your throat. But tonsillar tissue also includes the lingual tonsil (located in the base of the tongue), tubal tonsils, and the adenoid tonsil (often just called adenoids). "Collectively, these are referred to as Waldeyer's ring," says Raja Seethala, the director of head and neck pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a member of the College of American Pathologists Cancer Committee.

2. Tonsils are one of the body's first responders to pathogens.

The tonsils are a key barrier to inhaled or ingested pathogens that can cause infection or other harm, Seethala tells Mental Floss. "These pathogens bind to specialized immune cells in the lining—epithelium—to elicit an immune response in the lymphoid T and B cells of the tonsil," he says. Essentially, they help jumpstart your immune response.

3. Adenoid tonsils can obstruct breathing and cause facial deformities.

If the adenoid tonsils are swollen, they can block breathing and clog up your sinus drainage, which can cause sinus and ear infections. If adenoids are too big, it forces a person to breathe through their mouth. In children, frequent mouth breathing has the potential to cause facial deformities by stressing developing facial bones. "If the tonsils are too large and cause airway obstruction, snoring, or obstructive sleep apnea, then removal is important," says Donald Levine, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Nyack, New York. Fortunately, the adenoids tend to get smaller naturally in adulthood.

4. As many of us know, sometimes tonsils are removed.

Even though your tonsils are part of your immune system, Levine tells Mental Floss, "when they become obstructive or chronically infected, then they need to be removed." The rest of your immune system steps in to handle further attacks by pathogens. Another reason to remove tonsils besides size, Levine says, is "chronic tonsillitis due to the failure of the immune system to remove residual bacteria from the tonsils, despite multiple antibiotic therapies."

5. Tonsillectomies have been performed for thousands of years ...

Tonsil removal is believed to have been a phenomenon for three millennia. The procedure is found in ancient Ayurvedic texts, says Seethala, "making it one of the older documented surgical procedures." But though the scientific understanding of the surgery has changed dramatically since then, "the benefits versus harm of tonsillectomy have been continually debated over the centuries," he says.

6. ... and they were probably quite painful.

The first known reported case of tonsillectomy surgery, according to a 2006 paper in Otorhinolaryngology, is by Cornélio Celsus, a Roman "encylopaediest" and dabbler in medicine, who authored a medical encyclopedia titled Of Medicine in the 1st century BCE. Thanks to his work, we can surmise that a tonsillectomy probably was an agonizing procedure for the patient: "Celsus applied a mixture of vinegar and milk in the surgical specimen to hemostasis [stanch bleeding] and also described his difficulty doing that due to lack of proper anesthesia."

7. Tonsil removal was performed for unlikely reasons.

The same paper reveals that among some of the more outlandish reasons for removing tonsils were conditions like "night enuresis (bed-wetting), convulsions, laryngeal stridor, hoarseness, chronic bronchitis, and asthma."

8. An early treatment for swollen tonsils included frog fat.

As early practitioners struggled to perfect techniques for removing tonsils effectively, another early physician, Aetius de Amida, recommended "ointment, oils, and corrosive formulas with frog fat to treat infections."

9. Modern tonsillectomy is much more sophisticated.

A common technique today for removing the tonsils, according to Levine, is a far cry from the painful early attempts. Under brief general anesthesia, Levine uses a process called coblation. "[It's] a kind of cold cautery, so there is almost no bleeding, less post operative pain, and quicker healing. You can return to normal activities 10 days later," Levine says.

10. Sexually-transmitted HPV can cause tonsil cancer.

The incidence of tonsillar cancers is increasing, according to Seethala. "Unlike other head and neck cancers, which are commonly associated with smoking and alcohol, tonsillar cancers are driven by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)," he says. "HPV-related tonsillar cancer can be considered sexually transmitted."

26 Amazing Facts About the Human Body

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

At some point in your life, you've probably wondered: What is belly button lint, anyway? The answer, according to Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy, is that it's "fibers that rub off of clothing over time." And hairy people are more prone to getting it for a very specific (and kind of gross-sounding) reason. A group of scientists who formed the Belly Button Biodiversity Project in 2011 have also discovered that there's a whole lot of bacteria going on in there.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Erin is sharing 26 amazing facts about the human body, from your philtrum (the dent under your nose) to your feet. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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