Redheads and pain tolerance – scientific facts and myths

by mihgasper

Redheads are involved in many myths, some actually being backed with scientific evidence. Do they really feel pain differently than others, bleed more, need more anesthesia?

How about alcohol tolerance of redheads? Or temperature sensitiveness? How many special treats are associated with inglorious MC1R protein?

Several studies proved people with red hair (natural or dyed) act significantly different than everybody else, but their behavior could be influenced by the heavy mixture of historical and cultural heritage.

On the other hand, pain and amount of medication needed to suppress it are undeniably measurable. What a so-called hard science says about natural redheads and pain?

Myths and facts

Red hair is rare. While about 80 percent of people carry the possibility of having a ginger for a child, thanks to the recessiveness of the genes, only a fraction of people actually have a natural carrot top. According to the Fischer-Saller scale with eight different colors of hair, red is the rarest with only between one and two percent of the world population having it (dyed reds excluded).

The exceptional color initiated numerous superstitions and myths related to redheads. It is believed they are bleeding more than others, they need more pain killers for the same effect, they can’t stand dentists, are much more sensitive to the heat and can stand cold much better than a majority of world population.

From the genetical point of view, there is some logic behind these believes, some of them being many centuries old. Let’s examine them one by one.

Redheads, especially women, have a special status among humans for ages
Redheads, especially women, have a special status among humans for ages

Heat and Cold

Liem, Joiner, Tsueda, and Sessler (study 2005)

Article published in Anesthesiology (2005 Mar; 102(3): 509–514) revealed tests done on 30 volunteers with red and 30 volunteers with dark hair. All of them were healthy women between 18 and 40 years. All experiments were done in the first ten days of menstrual cycles of participants at the same time of the day (8 a.m.). Tests were done with TSA-II Neurosensory Analyzer for heat stimuli.

More sensitive to temperature changes
More sensitive to temperature changes

Lidocaine was used as a local anesthetic.

The study showed the pain sensitivity of redheads and brunettes is similar. The measurable difference is at the cold and heat pain.

Reds are more sensitive, what is understandable for heat (they produce less pigment as a skin protector against UV rays), but not for cold.

Until recently it was believed that lighter skin offers a certain advantage in colder climates (largest percent of red-haired people lives in Scotland and Ireland) because it emits less radiation and thus saves some body heat.

Although this still might be true, redheads don't stand more pain caused by coldness. They are actually more sensitive to all changes of temperature.

Pain tolerance is not easy to measure

Not everybody feels pain the same
Not everybody feels pain the same

It was also proved they need substantial higher quantities of lidocaine to suppress the pain than women with dark hair. In other words, they have higher resistance to local analgetic as lidocaine. There are several theories why is so, but none of them is adequately tested. The main concern related to this proven fact is the risk of overdose. If one patient needs four shots of a pain-killer, he definitely risks more than one who needs only half of dose.

A similar study was done at Louisville University in Kentucky in 2005, what leads us to the next chapter.

Pinching And Cutting

Andresen, Lunden, Drewes, and Arendt-Nielsen study (study 2011)

An article from Scandinavian Journal of Pain made on a similar group (20 redheads and 20 dark heads) confirmed the results presented above. They also made another experiment. It was done by injections of capsaicin (active substance in hot paprika). The study showed redheads are less sensitive to burning sensation caused by capsaicin what confirms anecdotical evidence about gingers who can eat spicier food than most others.

Red-headed people are also less sensitive to pain caused by a prick and many tattooists reported that redheads have fewer problems with needles.

They have also higher pain threshold for scratches, pressure, and other skin trauma.

Is possible they have some kind of compensation for sensitiveness in other areas related to pain?

They can handle more tattoos
They can handle more tattoos

Poll for redheads only

Do you need more or less pain killers at the dentist as non-redheads?


Redheads have significantly more fears and even phobias related to the dentist. Several studies in recent years examined this problem from different angles and it seems that the main reason is not in the pain itself.

The problem lies in the resistance to most used anesthetics. At least twice as more shots are required for a typical redhead than for a regular customer and the effect of so well-known dumb-lips is much shorter. For this reason much higher percentage of gingers avoids regular visits and the result is worse dental health.

Ever heard for dental anxiety
Ever heard for dental anxiety

Can we conclude reds are more or less susceptible to pain?

Well, the main conclusion is not exactly flattering for scientists and medicine in particular. We obviously have only a rough idea how anesthesia works. We can say with a relatively high level of certainty that MC1R protein has some role in the pain reception, but this role is not a simple one. What we can say for sure is that red-haired people feel pain differently than dark-haired ones.

Are you a redhead?
Are you a redhead?

To be more specific we need more tests, more experiments with different analgetics and especially better methods to design new studies and interpret results.

One very likely expected side-effect of further investigation should be a better understanding of the work of pain-killers and probably some new approaches, adjusted to different people,

Pharmacogenetics, a new medicine field studying the different effect of the same medicine on different people, is promising exactly that.

Like it or not, being a redhead or not, the color red has a very special meaning for humankind. Here is an article dealing with the meanings of red color:

I bet you can learn at least something new from it. Red is influential and it makes an instant impression. Redheads are special too. They are no better or worse than any other group. They are just different and we all love difference, don't we?

Updated: 11/28/2023, mihgasper
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mihgasper on 12/09/2023

Glad to hear you ae a fan, katiem2. That makes two of us!

katiem2 on 12/09/2023

I love this article. Being a redhead, I can attest to everything you've included. I have a dentist's phobia and love spicy food not finding it as hot as my non-redheaded family and friends. I wonder if redheads are naturally clumsy. I definitely have the clumsy gene and believe it to be a genetic fact. Hmm, perhaps you will continue this interesting exploration of redheads. I'm a FAN!

mihgasper on 12/05/2023

My pleasure, Jo.

Jo_Murphy on 12/05/2023

I have never even thought about all this! Interesting thought. Jo

mihgasper on 10/06/2023

Yes, could be!

DerdriuMarriner on 10/04/2023

The computer crashed before I could continue with an additional observation concerning redheads and their alcoholic intolerances or tolerances.

Might redhead intolerances or tolerances vary according to the alcoholic type?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/04/2023

The first sentence in your first introductory paragraph contains the question, "How about alcohol tolerance of redheads?"

What is the configuration that research and tradition show for redheads and their intolerance or their tolerance of alcoholic drinks?

DerdriuMarriner on 09/29/2023

The second paragraph in your introduction keeps drawing me back with its thought-provoking observation that "Several studies proved people with red hair (natural or dyed) act significantly different than everybody else, but their behavior could be influenced by the heavy mixture of historical and cultural heritage."

It makes me think of nature versus nurture influences. Might it be saying that those who become dyed redheads assume redhead characteristics such that they too share (in Bob Dylan's words) "a personal acquaintance with pain"?

DerdriuMarriner on 09/27/2023

It's interesting that dental pain- and problem-proneness and heat sensitivity may be correlated with red-haired people.

That means that perhaps an otherwise hair-colored person with dental pain, dental problems and heat sensitivity may have the red-haired recessive gene, correct?

DerdriuMarriner on 09/23/2023

Considering hair properties with the graying and whitening with age came to mind with the last three parenthesized words -- (dyed reds excluded) -- in the last sentence of your first paragraph in the first subheading, Myths and facts.

Blood, bones, muscles and skin change with age. So too perhaps hair!?!

Have there been any studies about aged- and aging-hair properties? Might it not be possible that pain tolerances manifest less or more?

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