A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that redheads were able to handle pain better than others. This may seem strange, but the researchers think they have figured out why. In humans and mice with red hair, pigment-producing cells in the skin lack a specific receptor. Without this receptor, changes occur that cause an imbalance in sensitivity and tolerance to pain.
What does hair color have to do with pain?
Researchers believe these findings may help develop future pain management treatments. This groundbreaking study finally finds out why redheads seem to deal with pain better than people with other hair colors. These findings have been published in the journal Progress of science.
The skin of people with red hair and other species with red fur have pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. This cell contains a variant form of the melanocortin receptor 1. The cell surface harbors this receptor and, if activated by circulating hormones called melanocortins, changes in pigmentation occur. It causes the melanocyte to produce a brown or black melanin pigment instead of yellow or red.
Previous work by David E. Fisher, MD, Ph.D., uncovered an interesting fact about melanin pigment in redheads. The study found that redheads you have trouble tanning due to inactive variants of the melanocortin 1 receptor. Fisher is the director of the Melanoma Program at the Mass General Cancer Center and director of the MGH Center for Skin Biology Research.
For this study, Fisher and his colleagues wanted to investigate why redheads have a higher tolerance for pain. To do this, they studied a strain of red-haired mice that, along with humans, have inactive melanocortin 1 receptors. These mice also had a higher tolerance for pain than mice with other hair colors.
Why Non-Working Melanocortin 1 Receptors Increase Pain Tolerance In Redheads
The team discovered why the inactive variant of this receptor resulted in a better ability to control pain. In red-haired mice, deactivation of this receptor caused melanocytes to secrete lower levels of POMC (proopiomelanocortin) molecules. This molecule contains several hormones, including one that increases sensitivity to pain and another that inhibits pain. These hormones balance the opioid receptors that block pain and the four receptors for melanocortin, increasing sensitivity to pain.
You could conclude that having low levels of both hormones would cancel each other out in red-haired mice and humans. However, the body produces other hormones and chemicals unrelated to the melanocyte, which activate opioid receptors. Having lower levels of hormones related to melanocytes leads to increased opioid signals, which help block pain. Therefore, pain tolerance in redheads go up too.
Fisher says this:
“These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind previous evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds. Understanding this mechanism provides validation of this prior evidence and valuable recognition for medical personnel when caring for patients whose sensitivity to pain may vary ”.
Fisher says the findings may revolutionize treatments for controlling and managing pain by working with the body’s natural processes. For example, there may be new drugs available that block all four melanocortin receptors that send pain signals to the brain. So people with other hair colors would benefit from what redheads naturally enjoy.
“Our ongoing work is focused on elucidating how additional skin-derived signals regulate pain and opioid signaling,” adds co-lead author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, Ph.D., researcher in Dermatology at MGH. . “Understanding these pathways in depth can lead to the identification of new pain modulating strategies.”
The National Institutes of Health, the Melanoma Research Alliance, and the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation helped fund this research. Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation also supported the study.
Besides having a higher tolerance for pain, redheads have other unique quirks about them. All hair colors are beautiful, but people with red hair benefit the most in specific ways.
Other interesting facts about redheads
- A genetic mutation is responsible for red hair. Both parents must carry the modified MC1R, or melanocortin receptor 1, to have redheaded children. Interestingly, parents with this genetic mutation who do not have red hair have a 25% chance of having red hair.
- Red hair occurs in less than 2% of people worldwide. Having red hair is extremely rare; in fact, only about 140 million people suffer from it. Scotland has the highest percentage of redheads (13%) and Ireland is second with 10% of the population.
- Red hair occurs more frequently in European descendants. If you are of Northern or Western European descent, you have a better chance of being a redhead. 2-6% of people with this origin have red hair; it occurs much less frequently in people of other ethnicities.
- Dyeing hair red is a challenge for those who want a reddish brown hue. Red hair is more difficult to dye than any other color. This is because it holds pigment stronger than different hair colors. Therefore, before bleaching your hair, you must remove the color, which can cause damage.
- Redheads have less hair. On average, redheads they have 90,000 strands of hair, while blondes have 110,000. Brunettes have more, 140,000. However, to make up for the fact that they have less hair, redheads tend to have fuller hair.
- Blue-eyed redheads are the rarest people on Earth. Most redheaded people have brown eyes; Hazel or green eyes are the second most common. Those with blue eyes are very rare.
- People with red hair are at increased risk of skin cancer. Because they have less melanin, they are more susceptible to developing skin cancer. According to the International Journal of Cancer, your risk is 2.5 times that of people with other hair colors.
Final Thoughts: Study Reveals Why Redheads Have Higher Pain Tolerance Than Others
Redheads do not have a functional melanocortin 1 receptor, which helps detect pain. Activation of this protein creates a brown or black melanin pigment; lack of it causes red or yellow. The lack of this receptor, along with an increase in opioid signals, increases your tolerance for pain. The researchers believe that this finding will improve pain management treatments in the future by targeting this receptor.