Fact Or Fiction: Redheads Feel More Pain Than Other People

Redheads are a unique bunch, with only 2 percent of the population having red hair. How does someone end up with the rarest hair color? Both parents must have a recessive gene trait for this to happen. A redhead inherits a mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) on chromosome 16. The mutation of MC1R is also responsible for producing melanin (skin pigmentation), which redheads can't produce because of the mutation. MC1R is why some people are born with red hair and pale skin — but what you might not know is that it also affects their pain response, too (via UCI Health). 

Dr. Shalini Shah, a UCI Health pain management specialist, tells UCI Health that redheads have a different tolerance to pain and are more difficult to sedate. She explains that redheads need more anesthesia and that there is evidence that they are more sensitive to opioids and more tolerant of local anesthetics. 

Many redheads fear dentists, and that's because they need more topical anesthetic, such as Novocaine or lidocaine. Essentially, when they're given the usual dose of topical anesthetic, it may have little to no effect, and they'll feel whatever the dentist is doing. 

Redheads need about 20 percent more anesthesia medication than others. They require lower doses of pain medications such as opioids. They might be less sensitive to needles, stinging pain on the skin, and electric shock. Redheads can also detect changes in hot and cold temperatures better than others.

More anesthetic, less pain medication

Unfortunately, more studies need to be completed on how people with red hair react to pain, anesthesia, and local anesthetics. Dr. Shah recommends redheads be proactive about their care, especially when undergoing any procedure that will require anesthesia and pain medication. Talk to your surgeon, anesthesiologist, or dentist about how you might need more anesthesia than others and how you may be more sensitive to pain medications. Daniel Sessler, an anesthesiologist, tells PBS that you cannot look at someone and tell how much anesthesia they will need — unless they have natural red hair.

A 2004 study on 10 women with dark hair and 10 women with bright red hair found that people with red hair needed to inhale 19 percent more anesthesia than others. A 2005 study on 30 red-haired women and 30 dark-haired women found that redheads needed more lidocaine, a local anesthetic, than others, as the usual dose was ineffective. Another 2005 study on mice and humans found that redheads needed less morphine to dull pain. A 2003 study found that red-haired women required less of a little-used opioid drug to treat labor pain. 

As you can see, those studies are old and small. More extensive studies need to be done, so any doctor involved in a redhead's care will understand how they respond differently to anesthesia and pain medication.