The 16 strangest medical cases of 2016

The 16 Strangest Medical Cases of 2016

hairball, rapunzel syndrome, rapunzel

This image shows the hairball, also called a "trichobezoar," being removed from the woman's stomach. The hairball measured 15 by 10 centimeters and had a short tail that extended into the small intestine. (Image credit: BMJ Case Reports)

From puzzling lumps and bumps to bewildering bodily reactions, medical case reports provide unique insight into how the human body functions and how doctors solve medical mysteries. 

They also bring up questions you never thought you'd ask. For example, why did a man lose his sense of smell after being bitten by a snake? And what are the effects of sniffing computer cleaner for years?

Read on for the 16 strangest case reports that Live Science covered in 2016.  

Ghost pepper leads to torn esophagus

ghost pepper

A ghost pepper (Image credit: Only Fabrizio/Shutterstock.)

Ghost peppers are among the hottest chili peppers in the world, coming in at more than 1 million Scoville units, which experts use to measure the "heat" of peppers. (For comparison, jalapeños measure about 5,000 Scoville units.)

A 47-year-old man in California felt the full fiery force of the ghost pepper after eating a hamburger topped with a ghost pepper puree, according to a case report published online in September in The Journal of Emergency Medicine.

After eating the pepper, the man started vomiting and couldn't stop. His vomiting was so violent that it tore a hole in his esophagus — a condition that, if left untreated, is almost always fatal.

The man spent 23 days in the hospital, and was later sent home with a feeding tube, along with little desire to try another ghost pepper in the future. 

Rapunzel syndrome

hairball, rapunzel syndrome, rapunzel

This image shows the hairball, also called a "trichobezoar," being removed from the woman's stomach. The hairball measured 15 by 10 centimeters and had a short tail that extended into the small intestine. (Image credit: BMJ Case Reports)

A 38-year-old woman's nausea and inability to keep any food down was caused by an incredibly rare condition called "Rapunzel syndrome."

Named for the fairy tale princess with incredibly long hair, the condition occurs when a person has a hairball in his or her stomach, and the hairball has a tail that extends into the intestines. It's caused by a psychiatric disorder called trichophagia, in which people compulsively swallow their own hair.

In the woman's case, doctors removed two hairballs surgically. The first, found in her stomach, measured 6 by 4 inches (15 by 10 centimeters) and had a short tail extending into her small intestine.  The second hairball was found farther down in the woman's small intestine, and measured 1 by 1.5 inches (3 by 4 cm), according to the case report, which was published in October in the journal BMJ Case Reports

A multitude of moles

moles, case study

A photo of the symmetrical, demarcated moles across the woman's back. (Image credit: JAMA Dermatology. Copyright © (2016) American Medical Association. All rights reserved.)

A 48-year-old woman sprouted thousands of moles on her torso and extremities in just a few months, and doctors couldn't figure out why.

Such an explosion of moles — a condition called eruptive nevi — is uncommon but not unheard of, according to the doctor who treated the woman. It may be caused by changes in hormone levels, certain medications or problems with the immune system. However, none of these causes could explain the moles that appeared in the woman's case.

Several of the moles, but not all of them, did turn out to be cancer. The woman will probably need lifelong skin surveillance to monitor for melanoma, according to the doctors who treated her.

Her case was described in May in the journal JAMA Dermatology

Wasp sting causes man's stroke


(Image credit: Timin |

Watch out for wasps: In one man's case, a sting from the angry insect led to a stroke.

About 1 hour after being stung by a wasp while working outside, the 44-year-old man showed several telltale signs of having a stroke, including difficulty speaking, paralysis on one side of his body and a facial "droop."

There are several ways a wasp sting could lead to a stroke, according to the case report, which was published in August in The Journal of Emergency Medicine. For example, certain compounds in wasp venom can cause blood to clot, which can lead to a stroke. Or, if a person has an allergic reaction to a sting, his or her blood pressure can drop, which can lower blood flow to the head.

In the man's case, the reason the wasp sting led to a stroke was unclear. The man has since recovered and is doing well, according to the doctors who treated him. 

Don't huff dust spray

A person holding a can of dust spray.

(Image credit: Narudom Chaisuwon / Shutterstock)

A 28-year-old man developed a rare type of bone disease, called skeletal fluorosis, due to his habit of huffing computer cleaner. The disease causes a person's bones to become too dense, which can lead to deformation.

Skeletal fluorosis is prevalent in parts of the world where fluoride levels in drinking water are too high. However, the disease is rare in North America and Europe, so the doctors who treated the man had trouble figuring out what caused the man's disease.

They eventually figured out that the man had a habit of inhaling computer dust spray to get high. The spray contains a chemical called difluoroethane, which is made up of the elements carbon, hydrogen and fluorine. In the body, the breakdown of the compound may produce fluoride.

The man was able to quit his habit of inhaling the dust spray, and he underwent hip-replacement surgery to help with some of the damage to his hip joints, according to a report of the man's case, published in July in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research

Snakebite leads to lost sense of smell

A photo of a mulga snake

Mulga snake (Image credit: Mulga snake photo via Shutterstock)

After being bitten by a venomous snake, a man in Australia lost his sense of smell for more than a year.

The 30-year-old man initially went to the hospital after being bitten by the snake, which was a mulga snake, but he was not given anti-venom because the doctors did not think his symptoms were severe enough to need the medicine, according to a report of his case, published in February in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.

But several days after the man was bitten, he noticed his sense of smell starting to deteriorate, and within weeks, he lost the ability to smell completely.

The doctors who treated the man said that although bites from the mulga snake rarely affect the nervous system, bites from other types of snakes have been shown to affect a person's sense of smell.  

Man swallows cellphone

A photo of a man eating a cellphone

(Image credit: Family Business | Shutterstock)

A prisoner in Ireland swallowed a cellphone, and doctors had trouble removing it using their usual approaches.

The doctors initially waited 18 hours to see if the cellphone would move through the man's digestive tract, but it remained lodged in his stomach, according to a report of the man's case, which was published in April in the International Journal of Surgery Case Reports.

The doctors tried to remove the phone by pulling it up through his esophagus, using medical tools such as forceps and snare-like devices, but the mobile phone couldn't be aligned properly to be pulled out of the stomach.

Ultimately, the cellphone had to be removed surgically, according to the report. 

Smartphone "blindness"

A woman in bed looking at her smartphone.

(Image credit: Syda Productions | Shutterstock)

There are many reasons to avoid bringing your smartphone into your bedroom, including temporary "blindness."

Two unrelated women in the United Kingdom told doctors that they had trouble seeing out of one eye when they were in bed at night. But these vision problems occurred only after the women had looked at their smartphones for several minutes, while lying on their sides, according to the report, published in June in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The doctors wrote in their report that they thought the problem resulted when the women viewed their smartphones with just one eye while lying down and the other eye was blocked by their pillow. In this situation, the eye looking at the smartphone becomes adapted to the light, and the eye blocked by the pillow becomes adapted to the dark. When the smartphone is turned off, the light-adjusted eye is perceived to be "blind" until it adjusts to the dark. 

A case of "temporary kleptomania"

A woman shoplifts.

(Image credit: cunaplus/

While it's no surprise that cosmetic surgery comes with some side effects, a 40-year-old Brazilian woman wasn't expecting to come out of surgery with a temporary psychiatric condition.

Several days after having an operation that included a tummy tuck and breast augmentation, the woman began to have "an irresistible compulsion toward stealing," according to the case report, published in January in the journal BMJ Case Reports

The most likely explanation for the woman's symptoms is that at some point during or right after her surgery, she suffered from inadequate blood flow to the brain, according to one of the doctors who treated her. This could have led to brain damage, which, in turn, might have led to the woman's symptoms of kleptomania.

The woman's brain damage eventually healed, and her neurological symptoms went away, according to the report. 

A 20-foot tapeworm finds a home

The tapeworm.

This image shows the tapeworm that the patient discharged from his body. It measured 20 feet 4 inches long. (Image credit: The New England Journal of Medicine ©2016)

A 38-year-old Chinese man's gut was home to a tapeworm for more than two years.

By the time the man was diagnosed with an infection, the parasite, called Taenia saginata or beef tapeworm, had grown to a length of 20 feet (6 meters), according to the report, published in January in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The man likely contracted the tapeworm by eating raw beef; people can become infected with the parasite by eating raw or undercooked beef from a contaminated cow.

Tapeworms can live in a person's gut for years and cause no symptoms. It wasn't until the man started to experience symptoms such as stomach pain, weight loss and vomiting that he finally went to a doctor. [The 10 Most Diabolical and Disgusting Parasites]

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.