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Edited: May 14, 2021

In recent years, studies have shown redheads feel more pain and need more anesthesia. A new study led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) contradicts what we have heard in the past; this new study has have found that people red hair feel less pain and have a higher threshold.

The study, published in Science Daily, found that natural redheads have a much higher pain tolerance than blondes and brunettes and it also has to do with a redhead’s skin. Yes, you heard it right. Due to a mechanism that ups a redhead’s susceptibility to sunburns, the skin cells lack the function of a certain receptor. The study goes on to say that a “lack of this receptor function causes changes that tip the balance between pain sensitivity and pain tolerance.”

The pigment-producing cells (cells that determine your pigmentation) are called melanocytes and contain a variant form of the melanocortin 1 receptor. “This receptor sits on the cell surface, and if it becomes activated by circulating hormones called melanocortins, it causes the melanocyte to switch from generating yellow/red melanin pigment to producing brown/black melanin pigment.” Meaning, these cells are crucial in deciding a person’s pain threshold. 

Redheads boast a faulty melanocyte and they can’t process enough dark pigment to tan. This has the added effect of elevating their threshold for hurt.

The study, led by David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Mass General Cancer Center’s Melanoma Program and director of MGH’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center, studied a strain of red-haired mice that “contains a variant that lacks melanocortin 1 receptor function and also exhibits higher pain thresholds.” Dr. Fisher led a previous study that found redheads cannot create dark pigment and tan due to their genetic mutation and loss of melanocytes.

We are excited and honored to have Dr. David E. Fisher on the How to be a Redhead podcast! Listen to Season 3, Episode 12 where he breaks down in simple terms more about his incredible study and why redheads feel less pain. Listen directly below or search for us wherever you listen to podcasts): 

 

This means that redheads feel less pain and have a higher pain threshold. “These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind earlier evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds,” says Dr. Fisher in Science Daily. “Understanding this mechanism provides validation of this earlier evidence and a valuable recognition for medical personnel when caring for patients whose pain sensitivities may vary.”

Now we know what Julianne Moore meant when she talked about feeling pain and being “a very tough redhead.” Watch the clip below:

Rock it like a Redhead!

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Melanoma Research Alliance, the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, and Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.

 

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