Redheads Are a Pain

04 Oct

Redheads are trouble. Redheads are a pain. Redheads have stirred things up for centuries. Who are these redheads? People like Napoleon, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Lucille Ball, Thomas Jefferson, Richard the Lionheart, and even the current British royal family’s redhead Prince Harry.

Ball, Lucille copy

But let’s be fair, it’s not really their fault. It’s a genetic deal. It seems that one of the things that distinguish redheads from the rest of us is that they have a lower pain threshold. They seem to feel pain more severely and make greater attempts to avoid painful situations.

A recent study reported in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) evaluated resistance to local anesthetics and level of anxiety in people with red hair versus non-redheads. They found that redheads experienced more anxiety and fear of dental procedures and tended to avoid them more often than others. Other studies have shown that redheads may require as much as a 20% increase in both local and general anesthesia and in pain treatment than do non-redhead.

So what is the deal with redheads?

The problem seems to be related to a gene that produces a substance called melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R). The MC1R gene belongs to a family of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain and a mutation in this gene apparently alters the person’s sensitivity to pain. Though this mutation can occur in non-redheads, it is more common in redheads. Normally the MC1R gene produces melanin but if the mutation occurs it produces a substance called pheomelanin, which in turn causes the individual to have red hair, fair skin, and a lower pain threshold.

So the next time the redhead in your family or circle of friends gets his or her “Irish Up,” it might be that they are suffering discomfort. Or maybe redheads are simply fiery and feisty by nature.

The Pain of Being a Redhead

NIH Article on Anesthetic Requirements

NIH Article on Thermal Sensitivity


Posted by on October 4, 2009 in Medical Issues


21 responses to “Redheads Are a Pain

  1. Pat Browning

    October 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Fascinating! My hair isn’t red but auburn (or was before gray crept in), and my pain threshold is non-existent! Anxiety? Oh, boy!
    Pat Browning


  2. Jonathan E. Quist

    October 4, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Interesting, but the curmudgeon in me insists on pointing out that Lucille Ball was a brunette, until (as one story puts it) she used henna to stand out in an audition.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm

      Oh no, Say it ain’t so. Lucy, the funniest woman who ever lived, must have been a redhead. I hate it when childhood myths crumble.


      • Jonathan E. Quist

        October 10, 2009 at 8:45 am

        Imagine my surprise when I learned my wife had been using henna before we first met…

        I think Lucy may have absorbed the characteristic traits through prolonged contact exposure to red hair coloring. The natural redheads I’ve known have all hit solidly on several, though not all, of the traits, in various combinations.

        My wife, on the other hand, is generally able to ignore pain, once she has
        decided to do so.


  3. Pat Brown

    October 4, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I was born with bright carrot top red hair and I share every one of those points. I can’t tolerate pain at all, and I’m so terrified of the dentist, they have to freeze my mouth to clean my teeth. LOL. And it’s because I’m a red head. Who knew.


  4. Gayle Carline

    October 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    I’m a redhead (yes, from birth and not out of the bottle), and I can say, anecdotally, that needles hurt. Whether they hurt me more than my blond and brunette friends, I can’t say. But the first time my husband watched an (inept) intern try to find one of my veins to draw some blood, he described it as “that scene from The Exorcist, right before her head spins around.”

    Does that count as feisty?


  5. Sarah Glenn

    October 4, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Hmm. This might explain why my Irish-blooded spouse requires extra shots when she goes to the dentist!


  6. L.J. Sellers

    October 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks for a fun post.


  7. Ilene Schneider

    October 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    As a life-loing strawberry blonde (born with a full head of hair, which my mother blamed for her nine months of heart burn and all-day morning sickness), I not-so-humbly disagree with the findings. I have such a high pain threshhold that our family doctor (the type who made house calls) worried that if I got appendicitis I wouldn’t complain. To prove him right, I once walked around for a day with a burst fallopian tube and internal bleeding and wondered why I had an upset stomach. I also am extremely “opiate naive” and can’t have general anaesthesia without barfing for 3 days (once on the doctor, who was a bit of putz, so I didn’t mind). I can’t even take tylenol with codeine, but manage just fine with alternating tylenol and ibuprofen, even following sugery.


  8. Ilene Schneider

    October 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Oh, and I have no fear of the dentist.


  9. blacknatty

    October 4, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    I respectfully disagree as well. I’m a natural redhead and have an extremely high pain threshold. My dentist says he wishes all his patients were like me, because I don’t take novocaine…ever. Drill away! He says I must be in training to be an international spy…


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 5, 2009 at 7:12 am

      That’s why we are 6 billion individuals. Genes are only part of the story and we are each unique.


  10. Karen in Ohio

    October 4, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Interesting! I’ve also been told that redheaded mothers have a much more difficult time nursing their babies because of the pain. Apparently, this is common knowledge among labor and delivery and neonatal nurses.


  11. Elysabeth

    October 5, 2009 at 7:05 am

    I definitely hate the dentist more than anything and can’t stand pain but I’ve had three kids all born by C-section and have had a ventral hernia repair and the first C-section was the worst pain; the other two I was ready to go home the day after and the day of surgery so not sure my pain threshold is really lower than most folks. With the hernia repair surgery I was really loopy from the pain meds – I remember people being in my room and talking to me but I can’t tell you what my replies were to them. My husband said I was talking out of my head at the time.

    I wonder if my gene hasn’t mutated all the way because I don’t really not tolerate pain but just don’t like it – lol. E 🙂


  12. Jen

    October 7, 2009 at 9:30 am

    As a real redhead I can vouch for the feistyness, you’d be feisty too if from a very young age total strangers tried to touch your head, however I have an incredibly high tolerance for pain. The studies I have seen say that redheads require more anesthesia to be put under but that does not necessarily mean the patient feel more pain. I do need more anesthesia however. I took a couple of Tylenol after my c-sections and was just fine, no need for the morphine they tried to give me. I never used to care about going to the dentist, and it doesn’t hurt but the expense kills me. More redheads are from Scot descent than Irish. I’m a smidgen Irish but a good chunk Scot. All the women and a few of the men are redheads in my family.


  13. Jessica

    October 9, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    actually lucille ball’s was a natural blonde, but they died her hair red because it looked good in technicolour.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 9, 2009 at 2:09 pm

      We now have one vote for her being a brunette and one for her being a blonde—but to me Lucy was and always will be a redhead—real or not. It just seemed to fit. Thanks for the comment.


  14. Victoria O'Hara

    October 17, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Red is recessive. Therefore redheads are rebels. And thank god. Everyone knows that change happens because of rebellion. Therefore redheads are the REASON the WORLD CHANGES. The greatest example of this is The dark ages… and Queen Elizabeth’s rebellion and leadership and inspiration of ALL THINGS social, economic, and even artistic. So thank god for us redheads and the recessive gene that causes us to feel things more deeply than any other hair color. We are the artists, the writers, the warriors who are able to fight through anything—-even more “pain”—– and change the world.


  15. arose4arose

    March 26, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I’m a natural redhead and the low threshold for pain doesn’t apply to me. I had surgery to remove my gallbladder four years ago and the only painkiller I took for it was an Advil and that was only for the stiff muscles in my back!

    I guess I’m just a fluke when it comes to that.


  16. John pinkerton

    November 11, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    GINGERS ROCK!! Im one and i hate the dentist to the point of going down swinging. Man, pain is not my friend.



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