Melanocortin-1 Gene for Red Hair and Pain Tolerance

Progress in science often means that existing theories are proven wrong. Ideas are overturned, causing confusion about what we should do to stay healthy and live longer. At some point, it seems best just to live a life of moderation and keep your head down.

This month, scientists from the University of Edinburgh announced a mutation that disables the melanocortin-1 gene which, in women only, leads to red hair and a higher tolerance for pain. Normally, the melanocortin-1 gene produces a protein that reduces the efficacy of opiate drugs, but without a functional gene, natural and artificial painkillers appear to induce a three-fold stronger effect in redheaded women.

“It does appear that redheads have a significantly different pain threshold and require less anaesthetic to block out certain pains,” Professor Ian Jackson of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit, said.

I hate to contradict Professor Jackson (ok, maybe I like it), but three years ago, research suggested quite the opposite. Redheads were found to be more sensitive to pain and in need of more anesthesia during surgery.

Neither study is particularly convincing. The most recent study examined mice and the older study studied only ten redhaired women.

In any case, understanding the underlying pathophysiology of pain will eventually make it possible for each of us to have a personalized pain treatment program that will calibrate the most appropriate amounts of addictive painkillers and side-effect causing anesthesia. Now if we could only get the story straight.

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    • Qadira

      I am confused why they think determining pain based upon hair color is a great idea. I know my own hair was pale pale blond as a child, but has become almost brown as an adult. My hair, and many people’s hair if you talk to hairdresers, is a composite of several different colors. I have individual hairs that are jet black, vibrant red, pale blond, muddy nondescript, and even *sigh* a couple gray & silver ones (but I pull those out when I find them).

      How much red hair would I have to have total in order for my hair color to affect my body’s reaction to pain medication? And how on earth is a mouse study going to determine something like that? Maybe they mean people who’s hair is truly all one color naturally.

      The other thing that puzzles me isn’t really a problem, it’s more of a curiosity. And that is how the brain itself recognizes pain and assigns a reaction to it- if hair color were a definitive guide, you would think that the anecdotal evidence among dentists and other people who poke humans with sharp objects, would indicate a consistent need for more-than-average or less-than-average pain meds in certain color of hair patients. I haven’t actually looked for such data, so maybe it is out there, and is part of what has made scientists interested in studying the hair color/pain correlation.

      I wonder how much environment/upbringing and personality contribute to how we perceive and manage pain. It would be potentially disastrous to automatically give a redhead patient 3X the medication without other considerations being factored in.

    • http://www.aboutweblogs.com/genetics/ Lei

      Q, You bring up so many good points (as usual). So many people dye their hair now that it would be a very imprecise way to determine anything, least of all something as important as medication.

      As for pain being subjective, that is so true. In any case, I’m hoping anesthesiologist and other doctors are a bit more sophisticated in determining dosages of pain killers and anesthesia.

    • teri

      As a true redhead, all i can say is various pain medicines have little to no affect on me – for instance, lidocaine. a lidocaine patch is nothing more than a sticky piece of paper on my skin. No one could figure out why… now it makes sense… It’s a problem finding a medicine for pain relief.

    • http://www.aboutweblogs.com/genetics/ Lei

      teri, Thank you for sharing your experience. In the future, we’ll hopefully be able to tailor pain medications for different people based on their genetic make-up. Hope you find appropriate pain relief soon!

    • Robert

      The question is, Qadira, do you have the MC1R gene? I have dark brown hair on my head, but my goatee is red, as well is my beard (if I grow it out). So, I won’t have that 25% extra pain tolerance if I don’t have MC1R, but I do have red hair.

    • colleen

      is it safe to go ahead and give read heads and upper dose? should doctors automaticly give them more?

    • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

      colleen: Please check with your anesthesiologist on latest protocol.

    • hghgghjhhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhigig

      well… let’s just say that i really needed this pg 2 use 4 my speech… it gave me info

      hghgghjhhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhigig

    • hghgghjhhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhigig

      thnx 4 listening. and by the way, i’m probably the least pain tolerant red head in the world.

    • Susie

      My OB GYN doctor was part of the first study.

      Even at the dentist I seem to never get enough in those injections to stop the pain completely. They sometimes have to keep do it a couple of times, and finally tell me just to live with it. So I think we just have trouble metabolizing anesthetics.

      However, I also feel like I do have a higher threshold to more pain at the same time.

    • shai

      As a natural redhead, I could have told them this years ago. When I was in my middle teens,my dentist always had to knock me totally out with ‘laughing gas’, or I would be grabbing his hands! Then I injured my back and am on pain med’s for that. We tried everything for the pain on that, even oxycodone, and morphine, neither which worked. Finally got Vicodan and it works. I also get no relief with most muscle relaxers. I saw the original article concerning this about 5 years ago and cut it out of the paper and took it to my dr’s and said “ah ha! Now I have the proof!” Loved it!

    • Melissa

      Hey! You are talking about how linking hair color and pain tolerance is illogical becuase people die their hair? Did you forget that no matter what color hair you appear to have your genes are predispositioned to reflect a certain color?! That is what they are talking about!!!!!!!

    • wyomingRN

      FInally!!!!!
      I have had doctors and dentists believe that I am a drug-seeking loser–now I am finding out that I have a 95% chance of having this gene. I am red-headed, and I have told doctors and dentists, and anesthesiologists that I have a high tolerance for medication, and a different threshold for pain than “normal” people. My daughter seems to have the same gene. It is so nice to finally not feel like a “loser”. Thank-you guys so much!!!

    • Caroline

      I’m a natural red-head who has just gotten her wisdom teeth out and my anesthiologist told me that I would be less receptive to my pain medicine. The only thing is, it helped the pain, but most of my other friends who have ever needed pain medications it has made them loopy if you know what I mean. So when they put me on hydros my pain pretty much subsided (with still a little bit of just dull pain I assumed was normal), but other than being sleepy I’m still just me. So I decided to look up some information on the internet, because my husband is red headed as well and has an extremely high pain tolerance and the same receptiveness to pain medications, and found this site. I just wanted to put my story on here so it could possibly help someone in the future with questions like mine.

    • Anonymous

      I’m a readhead with green eyes, fair skin and a few freckles, but I don’t know if I have this MC1R gene. I’ve never needed any kind of medicine during an operation at the dentist, and I’ve never needed any kind of painkillers after a fight (I do martial arts).

      My mum has brown hair, and my father had red hair the first 20 years of his life, but he now has brown hair as well.

      I don’t think these tests are true, IF I have the MC1R gene. But who knows…

      Where do I find out if I have the MC1R gene?

      (Sorry if my English is bad, but I’m not from an English-talking country)

    • Kim

      I too am a natural redhead. I do have a high pain tolerance and thank goodness for that as I metabolize anesthetics and painkillers rapidly. I do believe that when the medication is administered they pack the full punch the doctor intends but the effects don’t last. Such was the case when I had a root canal recently. The dentist kept pumping in the Novacaine but each shot would last about five minutes at most. Finally the doc apologetically said that he would have to finish without without any more shots as my heart was racing and he was too far into the procedure to bring in an anesthesiologist. Post-op pain management isn’t much better. Vicodin lasts 45 minutes to an hour at most. Morphine comes and goes faster than I can say, “ouch it hurts!” Again thank goodness for higher pain tolerance than most!

    • Melissa

      I am a natural red head and I can tell you that I can tolerate moderate pain but when it gets bad enough pain pills don’t usually work for me. After My husband had dental work he could take a hydrocodone and be knocked out but with me I usually have to take 2 and then the pain starts to decrease a little bit. I am going in tomorrow for dental work, having all 4 wisdom teeth pulled, and I’m a little nervous that I won’t respond to the anesthesia. A couple of years ago I had surgery for cervical cancer, and when they tried to “knock me out” it didn’t go so well and they had to use the mask instead of just an iv.
      As for the hot / cold discussion, I get hot very easily, it can be 70 degrees in my house and I’m burning up, my husband is exact opposite and is usually freezing. Needless to say I still have my air conditioner on in the winter. If it gets too hot like in the 90′s then I get hot flashes and feel like my face is on fire, and then I get very moody and don’t want to be bothered. I do have a fiery temper, and I’ve always been told it’s because of my red hair, but never put much thought into it. However the more I research this theory the more I find it’s true. I hate that it seems harder for me to control my temper than my husband, or others. My doctor put me on prozac thinking that it would help with my mood swings, but I don’t see a difference at all. Do any other red heads have problems with mood swings or am I just crazy :) ???

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    • http://Melanocortin-1GeneforRedhairandpaintolerance Mary

      I, too, am a redhead, have blue eyes. I have a high pain tolerance and trouble with painkillers. Like many of the above comments, I need extra injections at the dentist and at doctors and hospitals. Unfortunately, like WyomingRN, medical personnel just think I’m drug seeking loser. Not so! I also suffer from from head and neck along with migraines. Usually end in the ER with migraines several times a year. The last time, they had to give me 5 injections (IV) of morphine, 2 of toradol and 2 of dilaudid. I was still awake and had some pain, but could move about. When I had my son, I had 5 injections wtih my caudal, plus 6 injections of demerrol. Very frustrating!! Glad to know I’m not crazy. thanks for the opportunity to learn and vent.

    • Linda

      Auburn with blue eyes and very fair skin here! I can tolerate pain, but I have trouble with getting rid of it. Any time release drug does nothing as well as Demerol. I have a chronic back condition and take roxycodone which takes the edge off, but never gets rid of the pain entirely. I also have extremely sensitive skin and cannot wear anything with lace touching my skin or sleeves with elastic, and if there is one little crumb in my bed I can’t sleep. I am also very good at feeling slight temperature fluctuations. My mother calls me the princess and the pea. Nice to see I am not the only one with this problem. Two of my doctors actually heard about studies with redheads and pain, the rest think I’m nuts.

    • skam3gal

      this is fabulous! I heard something briefly about this on talkback and thought I’d look it up but wasn’t expecting such a response. I am a natural redhead but with brown eyes and am not fair. And after reading this might stop telling pregnant women they don’t need painkillers in childbirth, I used nothing and found it quite tolerable.
      I had previously tried to stay away from using painkillers (supermarket shelf avaliable) for headaches and back pain as I thought I had worked up a tolerance as they do nothing! Whereas a prescribed nurofen plus will knock me out but not last very long?

    • arabitca

      I think that the thing that we really have to remember about genetics is that there is very rarely one cause for a trait that is expressed in a person. For example, I have red hair naturally (well, more like orange) and I usually do need more painkillers at the dentists office and I have a high pain threshold. However my mom, who also has red hair and blue eyes, is very sensitive to pain and pain medication. So to say that red hair is all that is needed to make a person more or less sensitive is probably oversimplifying it. While there may be a relative trend (based on the data it looks possible) every person is different and no anesthesiologist would use hair color as a concrete guide.

    • Susan

      Yes this is true I am having a problem right now trying to get my pain under control I don’t know if I have high or low pain tolance but I do know that even the doctors I see can’t beleive how much med I take without even feeling it so it is true Oh and I have very light skin and arburn hair and lots of freckels I dye my hair though cause I hate what people say about redheads thanks so much for having this web site

    • Sherri

      I am a redhead and have had many bouts with pain throughout my life of 47 years. I first found out about anesthesia and redheads when I had my first colonoscopy about 9 years ago. They simply could not knock me out but continued with the procedure….YOW! I was coming up off the table in agony. What made it worse was the nurse shaking her head with a smirk on her face saying to me “relax, Honey. Just go to sleep”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!! They finally had to stop and reschedule so that an anesthesiologist could try and put me under before proceding. While in “recovery” I was up and dressed when the doc came in and took his surgical cap off…he was a redhead himself and explained that he gave me 3x the normal dose of med. which could have litterally put a non-redhead into a coma or killed them. He was aware of the studies conducted on redheads and explained it all to me. I was so relieved! It was so validating. I have to mention that I have severe scoliosis and deal with acute back pain every day of my life. I have been flagged in the emergency rooms as being a drug seeker. My doctors in the past have all given me “that look” when I tell them that the med. they prescribe doesn’t work. I’m at a loss and feel helpless. There has to be SOMETHING out there that will help ease my pain, right? How do I find it?

    • Karen S

      I am a redhead… I have always thought I had a high pain tolerance because after various operations on fairly significant sporting injuries including a knee reconstruction I have not need pain killers after 24 hours….
      Maybe there is some truth in the matter above.

    • FoxFire

      Its true
      I can personally vouch for the sensitivity to pain.
      I am an avid drug user. I enjoy the mentally liberating stimulation of psychedelics very much in my studies of entheogens. One of the driving forces behind my explorations in such was my requirement for pain relief. I had to find my own medicine. I recommend kava kava, coca leaf, cannabis, and san pedro cactus. These herbs I have mentioned will help you, enjoy.

      Make no mistake we are a sensitive people. We are oracles by nature worshiped for our visions since time forgotten . If you are a red head know that you have some degree of sacred blood flowing through your veins. It is a blessing, you are lucky. You got that fire inside. Very rich emotions to express one’s vision with.

      Beautiful red headed temple priestesses who agree with the magical notion of as above so below should know that I would love to have you to play with. To cast a glamor over you before feeding & intoxicating you with strange delights. The fruit of the flowers of the mind. To lay you upon colored pillows so soft that you might be comfortable while I nestle my head between your legs with joy. You make the blood of men boil.

      Try those herbs they will help.

    • Aya

      I’m a redhead – at least a coppernut – and I have to say, I have a very high pain barrier. Higher than most, if not all, people I know and this is verified by doctors who saw the severity of diseases I had and noticed that I often didn’t even show that I was in pain at all. Because of my high pain barrier I was often accused by my mother for not being sick at all when I was a child.

      However, I am very sensitive. I feel things immediately, I do feel ” pain” immediately and respond to it immediately, but more often than not the pain isn’t even bad to me. I *know* it is pain, but it doesn’t feel like pain. Yes, I do *feel* it, but more like you would feel someone poking in your side or something of the likes. I am very sensitive to touch, though. Not to pain, just to touch.

      Painkillers are a strange story with me. I swear by certain codeine-containing over-the-counter pills if I ever have to take them (mostly for the nagging pains which I can really live with but are getting too annoying) because, beside the hospital-endorsed pain relieving medication, it’s really the only thing that works for me. Lighter medication works for about 5 minutes and heavier prescription medication is out of my system before it starts to work properly.

      I also have a sensitive response to hormones. Now I’m not sure if that has anything to do with being a redhead, but I thought I’d mention it just in case, since I know hardly anyone else who has ever had that.

    • Desiree

      Yeahh I’m so glad to read all of your comments! Glad for being able to conclude I’m not crazy! My story according to dentists is clearly the same as all of yours; 1 anaesthesia just tickles my cheek, the second and third paralyses my cheek, but no forth of fifth will ever take away the pain of my tooth’s nerves. On the contrary – In a 1 to 10 scale I’d classify my average dentist pains at least at 20. The pain is just worse than you might ever wish upon your worst enemy. I hope I would ever find a dentist who is willing to try other opiates in the way I read in some reactions, in order to succeed in killing the pain. Wich so far has never happend just a tiny bit in me :(

      [I hope my English is good enough - I'm Dutch]

    • KT Kacer

      I’m a natural redhead (auburn, really) and I need 1/8 as much pain meds, but tend to be more sensitive to pain, but can tolerate far more pain than non-readhead peers. I’ve found I tend to be dichotomous that way.

    • amy

      I thought it was only me. asa kid i had bright firery red hair which later turned to auburn and now at 53 in some parts gray, in the back alittle darker brown. but i suffer from chronic pain owed to a car which left me with fixed screws and plates in my neck. i have been on several differnt types of pain meds only to learn that most did not work for me, or that i was even allergic to in a most serious way. for example i can not longertake any kind of SR meds or extended release meds as there is eithe something in the binding agent that my system can not take or i do notknow what it is. now on dilaudid IR seems to help some. it has no tylenol in it. after being on vicoden with all this tylenol, after several years, it was time for me to get off it and give my liver a rest. when my pm doc told me the other day that redheads have a more complicated treatment regime i questioned him but after doing some homework now i see why