A new study suggests that people with red hair have a higher pain tolerance than blondes, brunettes, and those with black hair. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found a link between melanocytes, the cells that determine human hair color, and how much discomfort a person can handle, and redheads seemed to come out the best, according to the study published in Science Advances.
- What does hair color have to do with pain tolerance? That’s the most interesting part. Redheads tend to have a faulty key receptor in their melanocytes which keeps their skin and hair from going dark/tanned. However, scientists believe this difference could also affect hormones, which then heightens the effect of their opioid receptors, the mechanism in our bodies that stops pain.
- The researchers performed the study on mice with red fur. That’s because mice have similar skin cells to humans and their red “hair” is also comparable to people’s – who knew? “These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind earlier evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds,” said lead researcher on the study, Dr. David Fischer. “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.”
- Is this true across all redheads? This research is limited and very preliminary, but it appears to be the case. That’s because the same imbalance that keeps people with red hair from being able to tan in the sun and instead makes them burn pretty easily also changes their production of a chemical called proopiomelanocortin, which then has a knock-on effect on the pain receptors. It’s all very complicated stuff, as you can tell!
- The scientists plan to continue their studies to find out more about this phenomenon. Co-lead author Lajos V. Kemény said: “Our ongoing work is focused on elucidating how additional skin-derived signals regulate pain and opioid signaling. Understanding these pathways in depth may lead to the identification of novel pain-modulating strategies.” Sounds pretty cool to me!