27 Oddest Medical Cases
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Have you ever been to the doctor because you had a fish jaw stuck in your eyeball? Or perhaps you've been rushed to the hospital after accidently inhaling your own earring? If you answered no to both of those questions, then consider yourself lucky: Fishy eyeballs and inhaled earrings are two real (and really bizarre) medical cases that have cropped up in recent years.
When doctors encounter such weird cases, they sometimes decide to publish a case report. Case reports are meant to add to scientific research, or help other doctors who might encounter the same strange symptoms in the future. But for those who aren't doctors, case reports illuminate the limits and the mysteries of the human body. Some also serve as highly effective cautionary tales.
Here's a look at 27 cases that will make your next trip to the doctor seem like a total bore.
Editor's Note: This article was first published on July 2, 2013, at 3:45 p.m. ET.
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You know what they say about raw beef: You shouldn't eat it (at least, not unless you cook it first).
The tapeworm likely lived inside the man's small intestine for at least two years before he went to see the doctors who would ultimately help him flush out this lengthy stowaway. [Here's a list of top meats that can make you sick.]
The man complained of stomach pain, vomiting, loss of appetite and weight loss; his doctors were able to quickly identify the cause of these symptoms because the patient brought along a crucial piece of evidence — a fragment of the parasite, which he had found in his stool. Combined with the patient's known predilection for raw beef, the tapeworm specimen helped doctors guess that the man was sharing his intestine with Taenia saginata(a species of beef tapeworm).
After being treated with an antibiotic that caused him to pass the tapeworm out of his body within hours, the man's symptoms cleared up in just three months, according to a case report published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January 2016. Presumably, the man's preference for uncooked beef passed just as quickly.
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Parasitic worm infection
What's worse than a parasitic worm infection? A parasitic worm infection that causes a "calcified bladder" — a condition that probably feels every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds.
A 43-year-old man in Qatar found out just how painful a calcified bladder can be. He had blood in his urine and pain when he peed for a month before doctors diagnosed him with an infection by the parasite Schistosoma, which is transmitted by freshwater snails.
The man's infection was located near his bladder and ureters(the tubes connecting the bladder to the kidneys). Eggs of the parasite ended up on the wall of the man's bladder, and his body's immune response caused these areas of the bladder wall to become calcified in a pattern known as "eggshell calcification," according to a case report published in The New England Journal of Medicine in February 2016.
While this kind of calcification as a result of schistosomiasis(another name for aSchistosoma infection) is not rare, it is unusual for doctors to see a patient with an entire bladder encased in calcium, since it takes years for that much calcium to build up inside the body.
But the patient's doctors suspected that the man actually became infected with the parasite as a child and that he lived with it for at least 30 years before doctors prescribed a treatment.
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Fish bone in the eyeball
Nothing ruins a day at the beach quite like getting a fish bone stuck in your eyeball. Unfortunately, that's what happened to a beachgoer visiting the Red Sea in 2015.
The 52-year-old tourist was swimming in the Red Seawhen he collided with a school of fish. Not long after the incident, the man developed a swollen and droopy eyelid that wouldn't heal. A doctor's visit revealed he had an area of inflammation called a granuloma on his eyelid, and the patient underwent surgery to correct the issue.
But a granuloma wasn't the only thing that doctors removed from the erstwhile swimmer's eyeball during the surgery. "Two tubular structures" were also removed from the man's eyelid, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2015.
A biologist was called in to examine these strange specimens, which turned out to be the jawbones of a halfbeak, a fish that dwells in shallow coastal waters. The fish bones had immobilized the muscles controlling the man's eyelid, causing it to droop. But the droopy-eyed swimmer recovered shortly after his surgery.
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You know that expression "too much of a good thing?" Well, that applies to this next case. A young man in Germany completed so many Sudoku puzzles (a logic game that may help sharpen memory) that he began having seizures.
Of course, that's only part of the story. The man had been an avid Sudoku solver for some time before experiencing such seizures, but that changed after he was trapped in an avalanche during a ski trip. He was eventually rescued, but while buried under the snow, the man experienced a condition known as hypoxia, in which the body tissues and brain don't receive enough oxygen. This condition caused the man to develop sudden muscle twitches around his mouth when he talked and in the muscles of his legs when he walked. He also experienced spontaneous seizures in his left arm. Doctors prescribed anti-epileptic medications and thought they had these seizures under control.
However, a few weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, the man began having seizures in his left arm again … but only when he did Sudoku puzzles.
Eventually, doctors got to the root of the problem: The man had a very intense "three-dimensional imagination" that was activated whenever he did these brain-stimulating puzzles. The part of his brain that he used when thinking about things in 3D happened to be the part of his brain that was most affected by his 15 minutes of oxygen deprivation under the snow. Overactivating this damaged part of his brain was what caused the man's seizures. Unfortunately, he had to give up Sudoku in order to make a full recovery.
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Leaking brain fluid
Need a reason to skip Pilates class? Because we've got a good one: In 2015, a British woman with persistent headaches found that the reason for her pain was leaking brain fluid brought on by (you guessed it) a Pilates class.
It typically takes some kind of trauma for brain fluid — a clear liquid that flows between the brain and spinal cord and their outer coverings — to leak. Trauma from car accidents, tumors and botched surgeries are all known to sometimes cause this problem. But in certain people, brain fluid leaks can occur spontaneously when too much pressure is put on the skull or spinal cord, which is probably what happened to the Pilates-performing patient with persistent headaches.
After a standard treatment of bed rest, caffeine and ibuprofen, the woman recovered, according to a report published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports.
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Toothy brain tumor
It's not entirely unusual for a 4-month-old baby to have a few teeth, unless those teeth are lodged in the baby's brain.
An infant in Maryland had teeth form in his brain as a result of a specific type of rare brain tumor. Doctors were able to remove the tumor and the boy made a full recovery, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2014.
Doctors suspected something might be going on inside the boy's brain when his head appeared to grow faster than was usual for his age. A scan of the child's brain revealed a tumor that contained what looked like teeth normally found in the lower jaw. And indeed, when doctors removed the tumor they extracted several fully formed teeth with it.
While teeth do sometimes appear in tumors, the type of tumor removed from the infant's brain — a craniopharyngioma — wasn't known to host these strange additions.
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Energy drink heart attack
What could cause a healthy 26-year-old to suffer a heart attack? Drinking nearly a dozen energy drinks a day, every day, that's what.
A man in Texas told doctors that he regularly consumed eight to 10 caffeine-laden energy drinks a day before suffering a heart attack. He also smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for two years prior to the incident, according to a report published in the journal Case Reports in Emergency Medicine in February 2015. [5 Health Problems Linked to Energy Drinks]
It's possible that the excessive amount of caffeine in these drinks, as well as other potentially harmful substances, may have reduced blood flow in the man's coronary blood vessel, causing a blood clot to form and ultimately resulting in a heart attack. The report's authors also noted that smoking may have led to the constriction of the man's coronary artery.
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This is not what people mean when they say they want to "ring in the New Year" — A woman in Australia accidentally inhaled an earring at a New Year's Eve party in 2015.
The 41-year-old woman, who had asthma, reached into her purse for her inhaler when she began to wheeze during the New Year's festivities. Unbeknownst to her, a loose earring from her purse had become lodged in the inhaler, and she inhaled it when she used the device.
The earring scratched the back of the woman's throat, causing her to wheeze more and cough up blood, before it became lodged in her right bronchus (one of the main airways leading from the windpipe to the lungs), according to a report published in the journal BMJ Case Reports in April 2015.
Doctors were able to remove the earring, and the woman healed quickly. She also learned an important lesson about replacing the lid on her inhaler after every use.
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Hepatitis from tea
Green tea is supposed to be good for you; researchers have found that compounds in the beverage may help suppress lung cancerand improve certain brain functions. However, drinking too much of the green stuff is not a good idea if you're not sure what else is in the teabag, according to report published in the journal BMJ Case Reports in October 2015.
A 16-year-old girl in the U.K. learned this lesson the hard way when, after consuming about three cups of green tea a day for three months, she started to show symptoms of acute hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver.
The girl had ordered the suspect tea online (after hearing claims it could help her lose weight). Most of the beverage's ingredients were in Chinese, so she wasn't sure exactly what was in the alleged "weight loss" beverage. Her doctors didn't analyze the exact chemical makeup of the tea, but once the girl stopped consuming it, her symptoms — which included jaundice, joint pain and dizziness — improved quickly.
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Baking soda craving
Pregnancy cravings are normal, but indulging unusual cravings when pregnant can sometimes be dangerous. Case in point: A woman who consumed a 1-pound box of baking soda a day, both before and during her pregnancy, developed serious muscle and heart conditions, according to a report published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in August 2013.
What caused the woman to crave an ingredient most commonly found (in very small quantities) in baked goods? The doctors who diagnosed her believe it was a condition known as pica, which is common during pregnancyand is characterized by cravings for nonfood items, such as baking powder, clay or dirt. [9 Uncommon Conditions That Pregnancy May Bring]
Baking soda is mostly made up of sodium bicarbonate which, when consumed in large quantities, can disturb the body's normal metabolic processes. In the case of the mother-to-be, downing such a large quantity of baking soda resulted in weakening of the heart and other muscles. Luckily, doctors were able to induce labor and the woman delivered a healthy baby.
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A frustrated man in India went to doctors complaining that he got a headache every time he watched pornography. The pain started five minutes into a video, and peaked after eight to 10 minutes.
Sex headaches are both mysterious and somewhat rare, said Dr. Amy Gelfand, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. One percent of the population may suffer from so-called primary sex headaches at one point in life, she told LiveScience.
Most sufferers develop a sudden headache at the point of orgasm. Less often, the primary sex headache will emerge slowly as sexual arousal heightens. But the man in India had quite the unusual case because his sex headaches only appeared while watching videos, not during masturbation and not during sexual activity, according to the case report published in 2012 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Doctors think that muscle contractions in the neck and jaw may trigger primary sex headaches. Others theorize nerves or blood vessels in the head become overly sensitive to the sexual response. However, the cause remains a mystery.
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Risky drinking games usually involve alcohol, but one teen learned not to swig soy sauce, either. A 19-year-old man in Virginia drank a quart of soy sauce on a dare.
He first started twitching, and then had seizures and eventually landed in the hospital in a three-day coma. Doctors diagnosed him with hypernatremia, or dangerous levels of salt in the bloodstream.
One quart of soy sauce can contain as much as a third of a pound (150 grams) of sodium. Excess sodium in the bloodstream pulls water out of nearby tissues by a process called osmosis, which equalizes the concentrations of salt across cells. Hypernatremia can extract so much water from the brain that it starts to shrink and bleed.
It took doctors about five hours and 1.5 gallons (5.7 liters) of sugar water pumped into the teen's body to get his sodium levels back to normal, according to the report, published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in June.
Surprisingly, he survived with no long-term neurological damage.
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An 87-year-old woman in Switzerland sought medical help when she developed painful spasms every time she swallowed. Imaging and X-rays revealed her esophagus twisted up like a corkscrew whenever she ate. The condition caused her to lose 11 pounds (5 kilograms) over the course of several months, according to the case report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May.
Specialists in the United States told LiveScience that while the twisting esophagus was odd, the condition is not unknown.
Muscle spasms are to blame for this type of pain. Instead of contracting and relaxing in a series from the mouth to the stomach, the muscles within this woman's esophagus contracted simultaneously, said Dr. John Pandolfino of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
There is no cure for the condition.
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Star in the eye
Sometimes, cartoons get it right. A punch to the head left one man in Austria with an actual star in his eye, according to a report published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A strong hit to the face from balls, punches or even airbags can send shockwaves through the eye strong enough to damage the lens and cause a cataract. Doctors say the cataract that appeared in the 55-year-old's eye was only strange because of the intricate star shape.
"Nature has made a beautiful cataract," said Dr. Mark Fromer, an ophthalmologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Usually, such cataracts appear as a white-yellow cloud, not a star. In these types of cases, cataract surgery can restore a person's vision.
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Your eyeball is certainly one place you don't want to grow hair. A young Iranian man knew that since birth, he had a benign tumor on his eye, just below his pupil. But by the time he was 19, the tumor had grown to about a quarter inch thick (0.64 centimeters), and started sprouting hair.
The tumor was a limbal dermoid. Although this type of tumor isn't typically cancerous, it can grow cartilage, hair and sometimes even sweat glands. Not everyone with these tumors wants or needs them removed.
However, doctors did remove the hairy tumor from the man's eye, according to the case report published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine.
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Penis tattoo side effects
A young man's tattoo idea went terribly wrong when it left him with a permanent erection. The 21-year-old in Iran paid a tattoo artist to put the letter M, for his girlfriend's last name, and the Persian phrase for "Good luck with your journeys" on his penis.
According to the doctors who treated him, the man felt pain for eight days after the tattoo. Then, his penis became permanently semierect. He lived with the condition for three months before getting medical help, according to the report.
Doctors tried shunting the penis to drain excess blood, but it didn't work. Ultimately, the patient decided he was fine with the condition and declined further treatment, according to the case report published in 2012 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
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Extreme soda habit
Ever wonder what would happen if you were to drink soda — and only soda — for a long time? A woman in Monaco did just that for 15 years.
The 31-year-old was sent to the hospital after she fainted. Tests found she had severely low potassium levels and an irregular heartbeat, but no hormone problems or family history of heart problems. She did, however, admit to drinking 2 liters (about a half gallon) of cola and no other liquids every day since the age of 15.
Doctors said the cola could draw excess water into the bowels, causing diarrhea and leaching potassium from the body. High amounts of caffeine in the cola could also interfere with potassium reabsorption. Low levels of potassium are known to cause heart rhythm problems.
One week after dropping her soda habit, the woman's heartbeat and potassium levels returned to normal, according to the report, presented in June at a heart doctors' meeting in Athens, Greece.
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Toothpick in the liver
Forget watermelon seeds or gum. Don't ever swallow a toothpick.
In a recent case, a 45-year-old woman became gradually weaker over several months before being admitted to the hospital for vomiting and low blood pressure.
At first, doctors thought she had an infection, but tests showed a 1-inch-long (2.5 cm) puss-filled cavity in her liver. Surgery later showed it was a toothpick she had swallowed; it had somehow moved from her digestive track and lodged itself in her liver, according the report, published in the journal BMJ Case Reports in 2012.
Doctors have published at least 17 cases of patients who swallowed a whole toothpick that migrated to the liver.
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A 67-year-old retired teacher in Kentucky was on the verge of asking for an exorcism after she started seeing oblong faces with large teeth, eyes and ears hovering over her.
Doctors confirmed she wasn't on drugs, and wasn't losing her mind. The woman said she knew the hallucinations were not really there, and they didn't speak to her.
In fact, the woman's macular degeneration had triggered a peculiar condition called Charles Bonnet syndrome, which causes some people suffering from eye disease to start to see animals, creepy faces or other illusions.
"When [the brain] expects sensory input and receives nothing, it often creates its own input," said Dr. Bharat Kumar, an internal medicine resident at the University of Kentucky who treated the woman.
Oftentimes, the hallucinations stop once the brain gets used to less visual input, according to the case report, published in February in the journal Age and Aging.
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Necrotic ulcer caused by a kitten
In a cat rescue mission gone wrong, a teenager in the Netherlands was left with a large, black open wound, which took multiple doctors several weeks to find its rare cause.
The kitten that the 17-year-old girl rescued from drowning in a ditch was sick and died the following day. Over the next several days the teenager developed a red wound on her wrist that blistered and then turned black. She also developed painful red bumps on her arm, spanning from the wound on her wrist up to her armpit.
After the antibiotics didn’t work, doctors began to suspect that the wound was caused by the cowpox virus.
"The girl had been treated by different doctors for about 13 days by then," said Dr. Jojanneke Heidema, a specialist in pediatric infectious disease at St. Antonius Ziekenhuis Hospital in Nieuwegein, Netherlands, who reported the case published Sept. 2 in the journal BMJ Case Reports.
After another week, the girl got better on her own, and the wound healed within two months, leaving a scar.
Cowpox is a self-limiting disease, meaning it usually doesn't need medical treatment if the patient has a healthy immune system, Dr. Heidema told LiveScience. [Image: the blackened, open wound]
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A 49-year-old man in Brazil survived a stroke but underwent a strange personality change afterward -- he developed "pathological generosity," according to a report of his case.
The man began to give away money, and bought candies for children he met on the street, his wife told the doctors. He was unable to manage his financial life, and would have gone into debt if it were not for his wife's attention, the researchers said.
The stroke apparently left the man with "excessive and persistent generosity," the researchers said in the report published Aug. 20 in the journal Neurocase.
The doctors evaluated the patient, by didn't find any evidence of manic symptoms or dementia that could explain his excessive generosity.
A CT scan showed low blood flow to several brain regions, including areas in the frontal lobe. These regions may not be directly damaged by the bleeding in the man's brain during his stroke, but are connected with that region by neural pathways. Damage in these pathways might have had a role in changing patient’s personality, the researchers said. [Image: MRI scan of the bleed]
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In a strange case, a woman developed "hyper empathy" after having a part of her brain called the amygdala removed in an effort to treat her severe epilepsy, according to a report of her case.
The amygdala is involved in recognizing emotions, and removing it would be expected to make it harder rather than easier for a person to read others' emotions, according to the researchers who reported her case, published Aug. 14 in the journal Neurocase. [Image: Patient's MRI Scan after Removing Amygdala]
The woman reported experiencing a new, spectacular emotional arousal and feeling physical effects along with her emotions, such as a "spin at the heart" or an "esophageal unpleasant feeling" when experiencing sadness or anger.
The researchers evaluated her psychological condition and found she performed exceptionally well on standard tests of empathic abilities.
The researchers said that perhaps, even though the amygdala was gone, other brain regions and newly organized connections among them, were responsible for driving stronger empathy.
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Lead pellets trapped in belly
An 8-year-old boy in Australia had high levels of lead in his blood for more than two years for unexplained reasons, until doctors found lead pellets in his body, trapped in an unlikely place, according to a report of his case published in Aug. 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
When the boy developed a stomachache and was admitted to the hospital, the doctors did an x-ray, which revealed a large number of small round objects in the boy's abdomen, appearing to be inside the digestive tract. The doctors immediately gave the boy a bowel washout, which should have cleared any object within his digestive tract, but a second x-ray showed the objects had not moved.
The doctors suspected the unlikely scenario – the objects had to be lodged in the boy's appendix.
In surgery, the doctors removed the boy’s appendix, and found it weighed five times heavier than normal. When they cut it open, they found 57 lead pellets trapped inside.
It turned out, the boy’s family had hunted for food with a gun that fired such pellets, and the boy had consumed them while playing a game with his siblings.
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Armpit hair infection
One man's irrepressible body odor was the result of a bacterial infection of his armpit hair, according to a recent report of the case.
The 40-year-old man told his doctors he'd had armpit odor and "dirty" armpit hair for the last four years. There was a "creamy yellow" substance on the man's armpit hairs.
The doctors diagnosed the man with trichomycosis axillaris, which is an infection of hair shafts caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium tenuis.
The man had his armpit hair shaved, and was treated with aluminum chloride (used to treat sweating) as well as the antibiotic erythromycin. The odor went away several weeks later, his doctors said.
The report was published Oct. 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
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Surfer's eye is an eye problem in which fibrous tissue grows over the surface of the eye. To treat this condition, surgeons often cut out the tissue with scissors.
But one adventurous surfer in Hawaii chose to let the force of water take care of his eye, by dipping his head into the rushing water while surfing a 30-foot (10 meters) wave, according to a report of his case published in 2014 in the journal BMJ Case Reports.
Apparently, the blunt force of water ripped off the irritating fibrous tissue, but doctors said the man was lucky the water didn't damage his eye.
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A young man in Brazil who suffered from throbbing headaches and vision problems for 10 years turned out to have stonelike buildups of calcium in his brain.
The stones were likely a rare complication of the man's celiac disease, a digestive condition that the man didn't know he had, according to a report of his case published in 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that, over time, can damage the lining of the small intestine and prevent the body from absorbing nutrients.
It is unclear how exactly celiac disease resulted in calcification in the brain, but researchers said it is possible that the patient's lowered ability to absorb iron may have had a role.
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Sure, the smell of pizza might drive you a little crazy (in a good way), but that's nothing compared to the effect that gluten-filled foods had on a woman whose medical case was described by doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2016.
The 37-year-old woman was studying for her doctorate when she began to have delusions, including a belief that people were conspiring against her. After the woman made threats against her family, she was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, but her anti-psychotic medications did little to control her symptoms. Other health issues, including unexplained weight loss and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, led doctors to believe that the woman might also have celiac disease(a condition in which the body can't digest gluten).
A surprising thing happened when the woman stopped eating gluten: She also stopped having delusions. Researchers aren’t sure why celiac disease can sometimes cause problems with the brain and nervous system, but some suspect that immune cells fighting the effects of gluten in the gut might travel to the