A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association revealed that people with naturally red hair, or a gene called the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene were much more likely to fear dental pain. They were also more likely to experience dental-care related anxiety and fear compared to people without red hair or the gene.

The majority of people who have red hair, and fair-skinned people, have variants of the MC1R gene. Previous studies show that redheads are resistant to subcutaneous local anesthetics. They also require about 20 percent more anesthesia before surgery than patients with other hair colors. Because of this heightened sensitivity to pain, authors of the recent study wanted to find out if having red hair or an MC1R gene variant, or both, could predict a patient's response to dental care.

Among other findings, the participants with MC1R gene variants were twice as likely to avoid going to the dentist compared to those without the MC1R gene variants, even after ruling out other factors such as sex or having an anxiety trait.

Why Redheads Fear of Pain Is Important

As the dental study shows, a fear of pain could prevent you from seeking necessary medical treatment. You may also suffer more discomfort than other patients during certain procedures.

However, there is some hope if you're a redhead, and it comes in the form of pharmacogenetics--using genetic data to predict a patient's response to a drug and to personalize a prescription. Researchers at McGill University found that the MC1R gene regulates pain relief from a group of drugs called kappa-opioids. But, there's a catch--your sex matters.

Using mice, the research team found that the MC1R gene regulates kappa-opioid pain relief only in females. They later demonstrated that redheaded, fair-skinned women get better relief from pentazocine, a common kappa-opioid medication. According to lead researcher Jeffrey Mogil, women with red hair respond better to these pain-killing drugs than anyone else - including men.

The researchers explain that, at the very least, identifying relevant genes can help doctors to personalize dosages of medications to each patient's needs. At best, it may lead to new drugs for treating pain.

Tips for Better Pain Relief for Redheads

Still, just because you're a redhead it doesn't mean you'll experience this benefit. The MC1R gene accounts for only between 60 and 65 percent of red hair. So what else can you do to reduce your response to pain?

• Learn to relax. It's widely accepted that relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can significantly reduce the sensation of pain. Sometimes, it may even reduce the amount of pain relievers you take.

• Discuss your options with your physician. If your doctor recommends a particularly painful procedure, find out whether there are other alternatives you could try first. Also, bring your redheaded status to his attention and your particular pain relief needs. Don't assume it will be automatically taken into consideration.

• Take pain meds more effectively. For instance, some drugs take longer to work than others, so don't just stop taking it after a few days if you don't get any relief. Or, if you know that a medication takes 15 to 20 minutes to take effect, and a particular activity triggers your pain, take your dose about 20 minutes before the activity begins.

• Watch for drug tolerance. After using a pain reliever for a while, you may develop a tolerance to it, whether you're a redhead or not. Speak to your doctor about increasing your dose (don't change your it on your own) or switching to a more effective medication.


Journal of the American Dental Association, 2009. Vol 140, No 7, 896-905.

© 2009 American Dental Association "Genetic Variations Associated With Red Hair Color and Fear of Dental Pain, Anxiety Regarding Dental Care and Avoidance of Dental Care."

McGill University press release "Redheaded women respond better to painkilling drug."