Redheads Can’t Handle The Pain

Kambiz here. I’m about to start my second term of medical school, which is both exciting and nerve racking. In my summer readings, I came across a medical and anthropological tidbit today that caught my attention: redheads have a lower tolerance for pain. I didn’t know that.  Did you?

Skin pigmentation is one of my favorite topics. We know from previous posts that the melanocortin-1 receptor gene or MC1R affects melanin production and ultimately skin and hair phenotypes. Redheads carry a variant of MC1R which produces a different pigment, called pheomelanin, resulting in freckles, fair skin and ginger hair.

How MC1R receptors affect pain is another story though, one that is not well understood. Aside from the skin MC1R is also expressed in the brain. It could be possible that the redhead allelic variant of the MC1R receptors don’t quite receive the signal transduction of pain reception in the same manner as those with the wildtype receptor. I don’t think I’m gonna become an anthesthesiologist but as someone interested in human genetic variation it is good to acknowledge some phenotypes affect how medicine is delivered. ;-)

Anyways, I don’t have much else to add to this other than to share some interesting information and to let you all know I’m alive but will be crawling under a rock again. Till next time.

20 thoughts on “Redheads Can’t Handle The Pain

  1. …redheads have a lower tolerance for pain. I didn’t know that. Did you?

    Nope. But there are all kind of vague myths about redheads being more nervous or unpredictable or whatever.

    Anyhow pheomelanin is also present in other people in variable amounts, right? Just read at the Wiki that women typically have some more than men and that it is the pigment that gives the reddish color to the skin, specially in lips, nipples, vulva, etc., which also varies among individuals and probably populations.

    For instance, while I’m black haired, when I compare my skin tone with the typical anthropometric gradient I never seem to find anything that matches well enough. I think it is because they miss totally that reddish hue. All shades look too yellowish or creamy to me.

    So I presume that even without red hair there may be people with relative high pheomelanin levels, right? Would such people also be more sensible to pain? I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

    1. I have dark hair and a ruddy complexion and many red-heads in my family… I also seem to have a high tolerance to most pain but am very sensitive to pain when it comes to my teeth – I would rather give birth than have my teeth worked on! Interesting thoughts….

  2. I wonder if the anxiety factor was making the anesthetic ineffective for those redheads who experienced more pain. After all, not all redheads are affected.
    Redheads may be more sensitive to pain – The statement has about as much merit as saying Pisceans may be more prone to falling asleep at the wheel. Clearly more research is needed.

    1. Sharon,

      I don’t appreciate your snarky analogy. You’re free to raise criticism on the science but redheadness, a real phenotype, cannot be compared to zodiac signs. Furthermore, there is an association with redheadness and pain tolerance supported by research, both qualitative and quantitative. Did you miss that point?


  3. Not sure what Kambiz has to say but after posting above, I checked SNPedia for the MC1R gene, which is the one affecting red hair and it is only certain SNP and not the others which is related with this issue:

    Rs1805007 in its T:T and C:T derived alleles (found together in some 20% of the Utah Whites HapMap sample: CEU) are known to cause “increased response to anaesthesics” (notice it does not say “reduced” but “increased” – odd), specially of the types used by dentists. The T:T allele (less than 5% of CEU) increases the likelihood of red hair by 13-20 times.

    The other known MCR1 SNPs that in the derived alleles also increase the chance of red hair (as well as poor tanning, higher melanoma risk, etc.), including the most common one, rs1805009, are not associated with increased reaction to analgesics.

    So guess that you can have red hair and react normally to analgesics (rather than pain itself) and you can be brunette or blond and have the same problems that the red hair of the story. The responsible SNP variants are anyhow associated to red hair but in most cases (T:C) do not promote red hair.

    1. Luis, thanks for the sleuthing.

      The verbage is confusing.

      I learned in my first term of medicine that an increased response to drugs can mean that an individual’s drug metabolising enzymes ‘digest’ the anaesthetics more efficiently. Thus, efficient enzymes reduce the effect of a normal dose of anesthetics more rapidly. From the article,

      This led to two studies. In 2004, research showed that people with red hair need 20 percent more general anesthesia than blonds and brunettes.

      A 2005 study indicated that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain and are more resistant to the effects of local anesthesia.

      I dunno.

      1. I learned in my first term of medicine that an increased response to drugs can mean that an individual’s drug metabolising enzymes ‘digest’ the anaesthetics more efficiently.

        Makes sense. The terminology is indeed confusing anyhow. Thanks.

  4. i don’t get why you are saying that redheads have low tolerance for pain that is the most dumbest idea ever!i am a redhead and i ain’t scared of pain i have experienced things you can only imagine ! don’t assume things about redheads if you ain’t one! you cant read there minds so what do you think we are? stupid? we ain’t but i will tell you, you are smart, but try not to assume things about people and judge them by their hair. ok
    i dunno
    but your things can hurt people,

    1. Just a student here, but as a philosophy minor, I couldn’t help but notice some things about some of the terminology being used here. Main point: “tolerance.” By “tolerance”, are we meaning something more like “physical sensitivity” (which seems fairly reasonable), or are we talking more subjective, individual resistance or psychological response/toughness (which doesn’t really seem to be logical given this sort of data)? I’m just pointing that out. I don’t THINK you mean “reds are less tough in regards to pain.” It seems that the data means something more like “there’s a gene in reds that makes their brains/nervous systems more sensitive to pain,” which have nothing to do with psychological toughness. In other words, you could be a complete noodle (psychologically) when it comes to pain, but have dark skin and hair, or you could be a blazing red and sleep on nails because you’re psychologically more capable or handling intense physical pain. This is all psychology, not genetics. It doesn’t seem to me that the data here has any capacity to make judgments on an individual’s toughness.

      Any-who, that’s my two cents…

  5. Question concerning the redhead and pain tolerances; I was born a redhead all the way down to my freckles, I burn easily and I am very sensitive to light. However I have a very high pain tolerance? So does it leave the question that it is possibly a personality trait versus a pigmentation trait?? There are several red heads in my family as well and most have a higher pain tolerance than the say the hispanic’s in my same said family. I believe it is more a personality learned than something arising from pigment.

  6. It’s quite confusing.

    The facts, AFAIK, are that one SNP related to red hair (among several, see above) causes decreased response to certain analgesics used primarily by dentists, so the people carrying it, redhaired or not (in fact most won’t be redhairs and many redhairs won’t carry that SNP) will need much larger doses. Ignorance of this issue appears to cause some people to avoid the dentist altogether out of fear of pain, which may be a true torture if the anesthesics don’t work on you. It can even be risky because you react instinctively to extreme pain and with one of those killing machines in your mouth…

  7. Kambiz,
    I totally agree with your findings. I have red hair and I wish that some of the nurses that I have had knew that fact. I have had them steal medicine from me, and when I start to run out, I get terribly upset and worry about how I can get some more. They often do not relay information to the doctor properly, which makes the problem worse instead of better. Thank you for this interesting discussion.

  8. Hi there,

    I am a redhead and have noticed definite parrallels with your article. ( Although I must say I disagree with the negative wording of your title)
    I have always been more sensitive to *certain types* of pain – eg. headaches, earaches and period pains- as have my 2 redhaired sisters.
    I also always required more than the normal dose of anaesthetic (very annoying when combined with a fear of dentists…) as does my friend who, although not a redhead, almost definitely carried the redhead gene (pale skin, freckles and ginger beard)

    Very bizarre stuff.

  9. I beg to differ. I am a redhead, pale complexion, freckles, burn easily, and feel I have a very high tolerance to pain. Pain medication however does not last long with me. Novicaine typically wears off far quicker than, dare I say, the average person.
    I have been diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia which is also known as the suicide disease due to the unbearable pain. I feel I cope with that very well.
    Pigment may have something to do with pain medications but I don’t believe it has anything to do with pain tolerance.

  10. I too have redhair (as do my sister and mother). Speaking from experience, I am difficult to sedate. I recently underwent foot surgery, woke up twice during, kicked the surgeon, and had to be heavily sedated.
    As far as “pain tolerance,” I would assume that I have a normal to high level of tolerance; but as earlier hypothesized, it maybe be psychological versus physiological. It may not be that I experience pain differently, but that I interpret and deal with pain differently. I had my wisdom teeth removed with a local only (that hurt obviously). I did require an epidural during childbirth (but who doesn’t?)
    Interestingly enough, I was diagnosed with Chilblains (related to Frostbite) this winter and Raynaud’s Phenomenon in my feet. My Podiatrist claimed that many redheads have vascular disorders. Due to the Raynaud’s, my feet are always cold, making me impervious to thermal pain and highly insensitive in my feet; hence, the reason I got Frostbite.
    I don’t know if this is a personal issue or typical of redheads.
    As far as pain related to dental work, my friend is my dental hygeniest and she told me that from working with me, she believed I had a high tolerance for pain. Again, psychological or physiological tolerance? The dental work hurts, but I don’t react to it out of fear of causing a mishap.

  11. I am a natural red head, and i would have to dis agree i have a very high tollerance for pain. Most of my family are red heads and they are the same way. Where ever they got their facts about this must not have done a very good study in my oppion

  12. I actually did some more research on this topic via the internet. I read that the impression that redheads have a lower pain tolerance is due to the response to anesthesia and how it is metabolised by the body during the surgery. This information was supported by my surgeon when I asked her why I needed to be more sedated than she had anticipated. So it may not be that redheads need more anesthesia for the pain level, but for the duration of the surgery.

  13. This whole thing about redheads being more sensitive to pain doesn’t apply to me and I’m a natural redhead! My tolerance for pain is quite high. In fact, when I had surgery a couple of years ago to remove my gallbladder, I didn’t even need any painkillers.

    I know that there has been some research done on this but I don’t think anyone should be so quick to assume that all redheads are sensitive to pain when that simply is not the case. There is a lot more to this then just genetics.

  14. Notice that the studies refer to disparate doses of anesthesia. This does NOT mean, in any sense, that people with red hair are more sensitive to pain. It means, in fact, quite clearly, that the anesthetics used in the studies are less effective on redheads.

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