Are red-headed people more sensitive to pain?


(PHOTO: "Six," from Flickr user goldsardine's CC-licensed stream)

...or are they just big old wusses? Let us ask science.

Spotted in the New York Times health blog "Well," an item about new research showing that redheads require larger doses of anesthesia and are often resistant to local pain blockers like Novocaine. A new study from The Journal of the American Dental Association says people with red hair tend to look forward to dental procedures even less than the rest of us, and are "twice as likely to avoid going to the dentist as people with other hair colors." Not because they're wimps, mind you, but because of mutant genes. Snip:

Researchers believe redheads are more sensitive to pain because of a mutation in a gene that affects hair color. In people with brown, black and blond hair, the gene, for the melanocortin-1 receptor, produces melanin. But a mutation in the MC1R gene results in the production of a substance called pheomelanin that results in red hair and fair skin.

The MC1R gene belongs to a family of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain, and as a result, a mutation in the gene appears to influence the body's sensitivity to pain. A 2004 study showed that redheads require, on average, about 20 percent more general anesthesia than people with dark hair or blond coloring. And in 2005, researchers found that redheads are more resistant to the effects of local anesthesia, such as the numbing drugs used by dentists.

The Pain of Being a Redhead (Via Mind Hacks via Maggie K-B)


  1. I’ve been trying to tell my doctors this for years. I’m a redhead, obviously, and I swear I suffer more pain that other people. Something small, like stubbing a toe, getting a splinter, banging your knee hurts me twice as much as my friends/family and I always need more pain/numbing medication. I used to think I was just losing my mind or a baby blowing things out of proportion. Thank you science for proving me right!

  2. I would always hear things like “are you DRINKING the novacaine” and usually the anesthetic was wearing off by the time the doctor/dentist arrived.

    I am so glad that study is getting attention–maybe now people won’t think I’m joking when I say my fondest post-lottery wish is for a set of dentures.

    1. so, are red heads more, or less, likely to use/abuse cocaine?

      I have Ehlers-Danlos, which makes me less susceptible to the ‘caines. I have to get shot up an hour ahead of time at the dentist. And I have no cocaine receptors. I could snort a cup of it and not get any buzz.

  3. There’s some observation to be made here about the state of Irish dentistry, but I’ll leave it to the scientists.

  4. I’m a redhead and I’m the exact opposite. I don’t know about the anesthesia but I’m always had an exceptional threshold for pain… I was told by my doctor that that was very common among the rednuts.

  5. First off, please stop with the “Gingers” stuff. We all know you saw the South Park episode. It’s not funny, I don’t appreciate being called a ginger or told I don’t have a soul all the time. Would you say the corresponding things to a black person or a jew? Don’t say it’s different. It’s not.

    Second, I’ve had a lot of fillings over the years, and generally have to use quite a lot more novocaine than is apparently common (according to my Dentist). I still feel a good bit of pain, but I’ve mostly gotten used to it.

  6. I’ve been arguing with my wife for years saying that I have a HIGH tolerance, but am just more severely effected by everything than she is. Turns out, I’m a mutant. A giant, rusty, crying mutant.

  7. I’m of the pasty white/red-haired variety, and yes, I definitely feel pain more acutely than others.

    When I had to have two teeth pulled from my upper jaw to make room for braces, the dentist gave me thirteen shots of Novacaine, the most he was allowed to use. It was so much that half my face went numb, and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. And I still screamed when he yanked the teeth out.

  8. Funny how yall read this. It’s not that we are more sensitive or feel more pain, but rather the stuff you give us to stop pain has to be in higher doses because we don’t assimilate it like you do.

    I remember working as a mechanic and putting my hands on radiators to sense the engine temperature. One of my friends was watching me, did it and kind of shrieked. I just grinned at him.

    I can tell you that the standard dosage of Vicodin given to numb kidney stone colic pain just doesn’t work for me.

  9. “redheads require, on average, about 20 percent more general anesthesia than people with dark hair or blond coloring.”
    Truth is we redheads are all just filthy drug pigs.

  10. Novocaine has never worked on me & I’m a redhead.

    But I can tolerate pain well, perhaps out of necessity. I had surgery on my toe once & there were a bunch of students in the room to watch the procedure. They were flinching the entire time while I just sat & waited for it to be over. They were impressed.

  11. When I go to the dentist I mostly do without anesthesia. It doesn’t make that much of a difference, and for me it’s not that bad even when pulling wisdom teeth or root-canal jobs.

    I had a dentist who didn’t believe the anesthesia didn’t work that well.

    I didn’t go to him that often. But I suspect that wasn’t because I’m a redhead, but because he was a cock.

  12. I’m a half breed, or day-walker as we like to be called. (My brother is fully red-headed, I have brown scalp hair but a very reddish beard). I’ve had Novocaine completely wear off in the middle of both filling and crowning procedures. There are many degrees of dental pain, from the sharp spike as the nerve ending is first contacted to the throbbing, pulsating pain as the entire nerve chain all the way into the jaw writhes in agony.
    That reminds me. I’m about due for a checkup.

  13. Ridiculous. People with red hair feel pain the same way as everyone else. I’m a redhead, it took the same amount of anethesia to put me under as it did everyone else.

    Also, what constitutes as red hair? Strawberry blond or copper? Auburn? What?

    What’s next? People with small feet are more likely to be addicted to caffeine?

    Hair color: it’s the new skin color.

  14. Huh! I’ve discovered that most drugs (well the legal ones that I’ve tried, anyway, don’t have any effect on me. Coffee just makes my pee smell, things that are supposed to make me sleepy don’t do a thing, and I’d have to take handfuls of tylenol, motrin, aspirin, etc to make a difference -s o I just don’t bother, and have learned to put up with all sorts of pain!

    And yes, I’ve had to have multiple injections of anaesthetic when getting wisdom teeth pulled… so the study sure seems to reflect my body’s mutant resistance to drugs! And yep, I’m a redhead.

    Very interesting…

  15. Novocaine (thank THRUICULAR, God of the Gingers), I have always had relatively good luck with. It takes two or three shots to successfully numb me up compared to my husband’s one…but it works.

    Several varieties of over the counter pain meds, on the other hand, are pointless. I may as well be swallowing Tic Tacs for all the good Aleve has ever done me.

  16. It can be painful during nesting season, all manner of birdies swoop upon me and try to peck at my auburn locks.

  17. This explains SO much. I have to take 3 times as many Advil as my wife in general and the localized aneasthetic the dentist gives me ALWAYS wears off fast and he has to give me twice as much; he NEVERS gives me enough and I always end up screaming in pain when he hits a nerve. I friggin hate the dentist!

  18. Sucks to be a Migraine sufferer. Took Advil out of desperation once. The weird visual field warpage was not appreciated on top of the usual migraine nausea I get. Basically did nothing for the pain and made the situation worse. Aspirin kind of works, I’ve just learned to live with the pain.

  19. Gollux said: “It’s not that we are more sensitive or feel more pain, but rather the stuff you give us to stop pain has to be in higher doses because we don’t assimilate it like you do.”

    That makes sense. My toddler is a redhead, and is completely and utterly fearless. He lasts maybe a day or two a month without a fresh bruise on his forehead, and when he smacks it he cries for ten seconds and then tries to climb the same damn thing. He seems to be oblivious to any but the sharpest most immediate pain.

  20. Not because they’re wimps, mind you, but because of mutant genes.

    Those aren’t exclusive – couldn’t it be the case that the mutant genes make them wimps?

  21. Perhaps this is related to the stereotype of redheads being more passionate. From my (admittedly limited) experience, there’s some truth to that particular stereotype.

  22. I have an absurdly high pain threshold. I had pancreatitis and gall stones and barely knew it until I was literally so bad I was near death if left untreated that night. I ran on a bad knee for years without realizing it was bad. My sister can tell if an eye lash falls out. I probably wouldn’t even notice if my actual eye fell out.

    I was in the ER for abdominal pain. I was given a dose of morphine. It never kicked in. I almost had a melt down, thinking I was crazy, because *morphine* didn’t kick in. When the nurse came to check on me to make sure the medication was working, I don’t think she could believe me when I said it wasn’t working yet.

    I have to take something between 8-12 advil (200 mg) at a time for menstrual cramps (I have real real bad ones and PMDD, so they aren’t just your average run of the mill bad cramps, but still!) and actually, I took 4 advil PM tonight and I’m still awake 6 hours later. I haven’t even yawned.

    When I have surgery, the drugs wear off so fast, I don’t have time to get to the pharmacy on the way home before the pain sets in.

    And all because I’m a ginger carrot top soul-less freckle faced redhead.

    Well, at least I know why. Now I just need to get this put on a medical alert bracelet so nurses will believe me for once in my life that I’m not trying to score drugs. Really. I’m a soul-less ginger…don’t they know I could just use my soul-less magic to get whatever drugs I want whenever I want? Our tender race is so misunderstood.

    1. I can so relate to you. Morphine does nothing for me other than make me sick to my stomach. I’ve had major back surgery 2 months ago. I was given a pain pump while in the hospital. It did not even touch my pain. I later developed a blood clot. The procedure that was performed on me I felt 100%. I was given fentenal(spelling).They gave me 4 times the amount that they would normally give and didn’t even touch the pain.

      Post surgey I am on valium for the spasms and hydrocodone for the pain. I am doubling up and it still doesn’t touch my pain. I only learned of his mc1r gene today and I an now going to see my doctor tomorrow about what better pain meds I can get to help me.

      I always hated having red hair, the fair skin and now one more reason to hate it.

  23. What makes the most sense is that the gene for red-headedness is also carried along with genes which respond to anaesthetics slightly differently, rather than redheads being more sensitive. All pain is subjective anyway. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they found that the biochemistry of pain receptors in redheads was subtly different – in the same way that some drugs are better treatments for people with different blood groups.

  24. Redheads are NOT more sensitive to pain. They are resistant to local anesthetics. Big difference. There’s probably a less common anesthetic that would work well for redheads and make the rest of us wimps.

    This type of inaccurate reporting explains why people are so misinformed and why scientists are blamed for not doing a better job of informing the public. (Don’t blame the NYT. I followed the link they provide, and so can you.)

  25. @10 Anonymous: you wrote:

    First off, please stop with the “Gingers” stuff. We all know you saw the South Park episode. It’s not funny, I don’t appreciate being called a ginger or told I don’t have a soul all the time. Would you say the corresponding things to a black person or a jew? Don’t say it’s different. It’s not.

    I haven’t seen the Southpark episode, but I know a thing or two about history. Blacks and Jews have both gone through periods of dramatic persecution. Putting those periods in the right perspective is an ongoing process, but it is at least arguable that those groups of people have a basis for being mindful of their portrayal. I’m gonna say something you’re not gonna like, but here goes: IT’S DIFFERENT.

    1. Uh-huh, but what about, say, the Japanese? If you know a “thing or two” about history I won’t need to point out that they have been fortunate enough to avoid any “dramatic periods of persecution” (unless we’re counting the Mongol hordes of the 14th century, and for the sake of argument, let’s not); and yet, any derisory sentiment regarding their appearance or the level of melanin in their skin is quite rightly denounced as the racist bile that it is.

      Here’s the thing: why don’t you stop trying to rationalise the very real need you clearly feel to marginalise and insult people solely on the basis of their appearance – as long as their forefathers weren’t the subject of genocide/institutionalised slavery…makes perfect sense

  26. Being resistant to the effects of pain killers and having a higher threshold for pain are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one would follow the other. If a redhead is resistant to the natural pain relief chemicals that their own body produces, they would experience higher levels of pain throughout their lives. If a redhead experiences more pain in the course of their lives than a non-redhead, it makes sense they would have a higher tolerance for pain.

  27. GOLLUX: You need to try out sumatriptan succinate (brand name Imitrex), and if that doesn’t work ponstel. Your doctor will need to test you to make sure your heart is in good shape before prescribing sumatriptan – it won’t damage your heart, but if your heart is already damaged sumatriptan can kill you nearly instantly.

    There’s no longer any need to suffer migraines for most people. I recommend the 25 mg pills – take two to start, and another every couple of hours until you don’t need them any more (six to eight hours for me). The higher dosage pills are best left to people who are completely bedridden without ’em, because the pills are hard to split.

    I get pretty bad migraines. Before sumatriptan was invented I used to occasionally have to take near-lethal doses of prescription opiates, which posed addiction problems, but rendered me gratefully unconscious (so I wasn’t so likely to put my .45 automatic in my mouth).

  28. I was a redhead once, way back in the late 70′ early 80′ … sported a punky dyed red head for a few years. Let me tell you, I felt way more pain back then, also I allegedly , dished-out more pain. So, yeah there could be a connection between having red hair and increased measure of pain.


    Yep it’s different, I guess that’s what all those “No Irish Need Apply” signs were about. And the “subspecies” stuff, and a nation next door kind of letting us starve so we had to leave the island for America. Hmm, maybe not so different after all.

  30. Does this resistance to the effect of certain drugs include alcohol? From my redheaded standpoint, that would explain so much…

  31. I really wish they’d done a little more research when they found brown-haired mutants–given my family experience (one of two red heads born to dark-haired parents, both my dad and my brown-haired brother have red beards), I would not be surprised if up all three of the brunet(te)s in my family are mutated as well. So I’m surprised they didn’t investigate the backgrounds of the brown-haired mutants to see if they also have red-headed relatives.

    And I also share the high tolerance of pain meds–I burn through a dose of Motrin in 2.5 hours, and can’t use Advil at all, or most of the generics.

  32. @41 Anonymous

    What’s helped the most is figuring out over time that I have mold allergies. Living in the PNW, that’s a major problem. Basically the mucous membranes become inflamed which causes pain that irritates your trigeminal nerves, causing in time the vasopressin cascade that triggers migraine. If I flush out my nasal passages on first symptoms, I can prevent the eventual headache. It’s a different kind of pain, but easily tolerable. Kidney stone colic was the ultimate, once I had that, it put all the other stuff into perspective. Pfft! What’s a broken arm?

  33. Hmmm, if you think kidney stones are bad, you get relatively mild migraines (speaking as a person who’s had both). But yeah, broken bones? Big deal. Upside to everything I guess.

  34. Heh, the one that lodged was the killer, it caught in a kink in the ureter. The nurse in the hospital told me that she’d had that happen and it makes childbirth pains seem pretty tame. She’d had three children, four kidney stones, two of which had to be operated for, she said she’d rather have the children, so I guess she knows what she’s talking about.

    I haven’t taken pain killer for the two that were willing to pass. That final trip out of the bladder is the worst part. Yeeow!

    1. it caught in a kink in the ureter.

      I had a stone in my ureter. They did a push-back, where they stick a catheter in and ram the stone through the ureter back to the uretero-pelvic junction where it can be blasted. Nothing like having a jagged rock scraped through your ureter.

  35. For #2, I think it is in your head about more pain. They are talking about numbing medication loosing potency quickly. I rarely take any pain meds but when I use over the counter stuff I normally just go up by 1/2 or double the dose. I never take any harsh drugs even after surgery, only Ibuprofen. I am a Redhead and I have a very very high pain tolerance. I have removed my own ingrown toenails multiple times with just pliers and wire-cutters, I’ve stabbed myself to the bone with a knife in my leg, (Don’t cut towards yourself kids!) I’ve had 6″ shards of glass pierce my arm when I punched a window when my sister locked me out naked. I have fallen of a bike and removed more skin then baby’s are born with. I also had my 4th wisdom tooth removed without numbing medication. The 1st 2 were fine it started waring off on the 3rd and by the 4th I figured I’d just deal with the pain.

  36. @Antinous

    What sucked worse is that was attempted, but things had swelled and it wouldn’t move. They cut it out. 5 hours and one collapsed lung later, I was all fixed up. They had me out of bed and attempting to walk the next day with no explanations about the lung thing. It was the weirdest thing trying to put your leg down and having a total motor nerve block reaction to the incision. After the fifth try and a shoulder to lean on we got moving. Mmmm… War stories…

  37. Another redhead raising her hand for FINALLY, SCIENCE HAS VINDICATED ME! All those years of painkillers just not doing anything and people not believing me.

    I read this article a few weeks ago and because I’m always sceptical about how science is reported for major news I looked up the research behind it via my university library (otherwise I’d link, it’s behind a paywall) and it’s actually (relatively) old news – in 2004 researchers found “Anesthetic requirement in red heads was increased 19%, a difference that was highly statistically significant (P = 0.0004). The results confirm anecdotal clinical impressions that anesthetic requirement is greater in redheads.”

    And then in 2006:
    “Redheads were more sensitive to cold pain, both in terms of cold pain perception and cold pain tolerance. Although the difference in heat pain perception between the two groups did not reach statistical significance, redheads had a lower threshold for heat pain tolerance. […] Liposomal lidocaine was slightly, but not significantly, less effective in redheads. In contrast, subcutaneous lidocaine was significantly less effective in redheads than in subjects with dark hair: Median survival thresholds for pain tolerance were lower in red-haired than in dark-haired volunteers.”

    So apparently this is common anecdotal knowledge among anesthetians which has now become scientific fact. But the same paper that reported heat pain tolerance found NO DIFFERENCE in general pain tolerance. So this is a matter of the chemicals used in painkillers not lasting as long in people with this mutant gene. And lidocane is the local anaesthetic that most dentists use.

    My personal experience and what my other redheaded brethren above are saying is that redheads tend to “tough it out” more than non-redheads. Maybe it’s a matter of redheads internalizing a stereotype of toughness rather than their true perception of pain. And yes, they’re calling people with the genetic mutation redheads even if that gene might not be activated, which makes me wonder about my both brown-haired parents. More study is needed!

    If we’re going to argue about the ginger thing, to me it’s more a joke that nobody finds funny than, say, verbal abuse, but many redheads go through bullying as children and don’t appreciate the teasing. Blonds make blond jokes, redheads rarely make redhead jokes.

  38. @43 Gollux:

    you wrote:

    Yep it’s different, I guess that’s what all those “No Irish Need Apply” signs were about. And the “subspecies” stuff, and a nation next door kind of letting us starve so we had to leave the island for America. Hmm, maybe not so different after all.

    I don’t understand, and if there’s a story here then I’d like to understand. Are most redheads Irish? And is being called a “ginger” a reference not to the hair color, but to some ethnic process in Ireland? NB: I myself am Irish…

  39. I found this article to be very interesting. I was at the dentist several times in the last couple of months for fillings and some work on my teeth. I could tell right away that I needed more novacaine. The dentist ended up giving me another couple of shots before I couldn’t feel anything when working on my teeth. I have also noticed that most aspirin and pain killers have little or no effect when I take them even when I was very young Yes, I’m a redhead. My husband joked with me saying it was the fiery coming up of me because I’m a redhead. He’s the one that introduced this article to me.

  40. Being a red-head I’ve noticed the opposite. I have an incredibly high threshold for pain.. to the point where I worry about breaking a bone and not knowing it. How every it is very true that anesthetics do not work on me well at all. When getting all 4 molars removed at once and all being fully impacted as well as abscessed (had been for years.. didn’t know or feel it) I woke up twice during the operation. The doctor was baffled as I was the first to wake up during operation, let alone twice. And local numbing doesn’t work. I ask dentists to just NOT bother using it as its a waste of time, and my hmo money lol.
    -High Threshold for pain, anesthetics just don’t work on me. RedHead with out freckles.

  41. Im a red head, and i hurt myself all the time. I don’t really mind the pain because I assume that its what other people feel too. So it takes much more for a red head to be conked out with a pain killer, big deal! That could be good if someone tried to put you under by slipping something into your drink and then plan on taking you away somewhere! I mean, honestly, anyone can tolerate pain if they want/need to, i do it all the time.

  42. I could write a book about all the issues…I’ve had with pain, being resistant to pain killers, resistant to Novocain, etc. It’s all true. Even the sun. When I was a child, auburn hair…freckles and all….I was so uncomfortable being out in the sun. It has always affected me in a horrible way. About the pain issue…it’s ALWAYS best to go to a doctor or dentist…that is knowledgeable about redheads. The facts are true.

Comments are closed.