Urban legend has it that redheads feel more pain than the rest of us – and it turns out that may actually be true.
Doctors have suspected for a while that redheads need more anesthesia, a sign they might be more sensitive to pain. This was proven in a 2004 study that showed carrot tops require an average of 20 percent more general anesthesia than people with dark or blonde hair.
A Double Pain Problem
Another study in 2005 showed that women with red hair really do feel some types of pain more intensely. They were more sensitive to thermal pain, or pain brought on by extreme heat or cold.
Also, the redheaded women in the study were resistant to the pain medication lidocaine. Lidocaine, also known as Novacaine, is often used by dentists to numb the mouth during dental work. It also is used to deaden the skin during stitches or other skin procedures.
As you can imagine, this caused the women to dread going to the dentist, and many even put off having necessary work done.
Gene Is the Culprit
So why are gingers more sensitive than the rest of us?
Apparently, red hair is caused by a mutation in the melanocortin-1 receptor gene, MC1R. In people with dark and blonde hair, the gene produces melanin, which gives the hair color and allows the skin to tan.
But in redheads, the gene makes pheomelanin, which results in red hair and fair skin that tends to freckle. The receptors for the gene MC1R include pain receptors in the brain, and the gene mutation makes them more sensitive.
Occasionally, this gene change is found in brunettes, but not nearly as often. In fact, in the 2005 study 65 of 67 redheads had it, opposed to only 20 of 77 women with brown or dark hair.
Talk to Your Doctors
If you’re a red head, going to have surgery, be sure to discuss the possibility of heightened pain perception with your doctor.
Are you a redhead? Have you noticed you’re more sensitive to pain? How do you deal with it?
Dr. Alison Urey is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s The Woodlands Clinic in Shenandoah. She joined the clinic in 2015 after completing her residency at Baylor College of Medicine and she welcomes new patients.