Question and Answer: Do Redheads Really Have More Pain?

The Truth About Natural Red Hair and Pain Medication

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Julianne Moore, a Natural Redhead. Photo: © Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Question: I am having surgery next month and my one friend (a nurse) says redheads require more pain medication. My other friend (also a nurse) says that is just an urban legend passed from nurse to nurse and that red hair means nothing. Who is right?


I hate to say it, but they are both right.

The "redheads require more pain medication" myth was, for decades, a kind of medical tale that was passed down from seasoned nurses to new nurses.

I remember my own nursing preceptor saying, “Oh, our patient is a natural redhead, be prepared to give them pain medication more often or in higher doses.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but more experienced nurses swore that it was true and were often mentally prepared to be more aggressive with treatment.

After decades of this “knowledge” being passed down from seasoned doctors and nurses to newer ones, a small study was done in 2004 to see if there was any truth to the idea. What the study revealed was this: Redheads in the study required more pain medication than the brunettes studied.

The study was a small one, but the authors stated that there was a “significantly higher” requirement for pain medication in the redheads. Now keep in mind that this study pertains to true redheads, not brunettes with auburn highlights, but the natural “gingers” of the world, and hair dye certainly doesn't change one's pain tolerance.

The study states not that redheads have more pain, but that more pain medication is required to control the pain they do have.  So science says that this former urban legend is actually fact, that pain management can be more challenging in natural redheads.

More recent research provides more information: a variation in the MCR1 gene is responsible the vast majority of redheads being, well, red.

 Here's the other interesting finding: individuals who don't have red hair can also have this gene variation and in the same study were found to have far greater anxiety when anticipating pain--in this case a dental procedure--than the average individual. It was the presence of the MCR1 gene variation that predicted anxiety and the avoidance of (potentially painful) dental procedures.  

In essence, it isn't being a redhead that makes individuals more anxious about pain, it is the presence of the MCR1 gene variation.  Being a redhead just makes the gene variation far more likely to be present, with 65 of the 67 red haired participants having the variation.  Contrasted with 20 out of 77 dark haired individuals studied having MCR1 variation, it is understandable why observers thought the phenomenon was a red hair issue.

So what does this mean for you, as a redhead? It means that your doctors and nurses will need to be diligent about controlling your pain, just as they should be with all of their patients. There is a “pain scale” that is commonly used to identify and rate pain from 1 to 10, with 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever had in your life.  There is also the possibility that your anxiety about the procedure contributes to your pain, as anxiety makes it more difficult to cope with pain.


Be honest about your pain and about your pain level after the medication takes effect. This will help your nurses and doctors determine the right dose of pain medication for you. In addition, don’t try to “tough it out” without pain medication unnecessarily and you should be fine!

How Much Pain Medicine You Should Take

Ideally, you take just enough pain medication to be able to move, walk, cough and do the necessary things in life and decrease the amount as your pain improves.  When your pain is minimal to moderate, you can switch to over the counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen. This is when most people return to their normal activities and find that they no longer need pain control.


Continuing pain medication longer than absolutely necessary is not a good idea, as there are serious side effects when using pain medication, such as constipation, fatigue, the risk of physical dependence and other annoying issues, such as itching.

Here's the good news: some redheads need more pain medication, but that does not mean that they need a huge amount more than other patients.  The study doesn't say that redheads need twice a much, just more than average.  

A Word From Very Well

Having red hair does not mean that you will suffer after having surgery or a procedure that is known to be painful.  It may (or may not) mean that you need a larger dose of pain medication than the typical patient, but that doesn't change the timeline for your recovery, not does it mean you will need a dramatic change in your pain management plan.  

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