In collaboration with Keck School of Medicine

Pain Management is Different for People With a Certain Hair Color

a person with red hair

It’s estimated that natural redheads make up around 2% of the world’s population. When many people think of those with natural red hair, they picture someone who is quick-tempered and fiery in personality. What they may not realize is that their hair color plays a role in how much pain they may feel, which impacts several areas of their life.

Researchers set out to shed more light on a topic that has been studied in the past. They wanted to see why it is that those with red hair, both humans and mice, tend to have a higher pain threshold. The results of their study are published in the April 2021 issue of the journal Science Advances [1].

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Prior research has already put red-haired humans and mice into the spotlight, pointing out that they have a higher pain threshold. They also don’t need as high of a dosage of pain-killing opioids, and they tend to require more anesthesia compared to people with non-red hair. In the latest study, researchers set out to answer the question of why this is so.

Using male mice that were at least eight weeks old, they conducted tests on their basal pain threshold and their sensitivity to opioid analgesics. What they found was that there is a reduction of loss of melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) function, which leads to a higher pain threshold. The researchers consistently observed a difference between mice with black hair and those with red. They believe that the differences are more significant than the minor fluctuations that are caused by other factors, such as those that are environmental or technical.

This information is something that people who have red hair and chronic pain and those who work with them to help manage it will want to be aware of. When someone with red hair experiences chronic pain, they are likely experiencing the intensity of it differently than others who have different hair colors. Their sensitivity to pain is different than people with other hair colors, and it also plays a role when it comes to taking analgesics.

Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene (2). The more eumelanin that the gene produces, the darker the hair color will be. Those who have red hair, on the other hand, cannot produce the eumelanin as a result of the mutation. It’s important to note that the research done on this topic over the years has been conflicting. Some studies point to redheads as having a higher pain threshold, while other studies have pointed to them having a lower threshold.

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  1. Science Advances. Reduced MC4R signaling alters nociceptive thresholds associated with red hair. April 2021.

This article was originally published on Confronting Chronic Pain by Dr. Steven Richeimer, Director Pain Medicine Master and Certificate.

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