Redheads have higher pain threshold than blondes or brunettes, study finds
6th April 2021

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Ginger people can tolerate more pain than brunettes and blondes, according to new research.

A new study from researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that the skin cells which determine a person's pigmentation, called melanocytes, are pivotal in deciding a person's pain threshold.

It claims redheads have a genetic mutation which means their melanocytes have a faulty version of a key receptor and therefore cannot make dark pigment to get a tan.

An effect of this is a chemical imbalance leading to a range of different hormones which ultimately enhance the effect of pain-blocking opioid receptors.

This means gingers produce more opioid signals than people with other hair colours and complexions – meaning their pain threshold is higher.

Researchers looked at red-furred mice in a laboratory as part of the study.

The skin cells of the rodents are similar to those of humans and the cause of red hair is comparable in the two species.

Dr David Fischer led a previous study which found people with red hair cannot create dark pigment and tan as a result of a loss of functionality in melanocytes.

Gingers, who have the rarest of human hair colours, like all people have a receptor on their melanocytes called melanocortin 1 which sticks out from the surface of the cell.

Its normal role is to control when the body starts making dark brown or black pigment.

Bit in redheads it doesn't work, causing the pale skin of many gingers which never goes bronze and is prone to sunburn.

But Dr Fischer discovered these defective receptors also alter the production of a chemical called POMC, which then degrades into various hormones.

These hormones create an equilibrium between pain-inhibiting and pain-enhancing receptors.

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The damaged melanocortin 1 receptor causes less POMC to be produced in redheads and therefore they have lower levels of the derived hormones.

Therefore, the equilibrium in redheads is at a lower concentration than in people with other hair colours.

This also enhances the impact of other hormones — not made by the skin pigment cells — which boost the effect of the pain-quashing opioid receptors.

As a result, redheads have a higher pain threshold, the researchers found in their study, published in Science Advances.

Dr Fisher commented: "These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind earlier evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds.

"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."

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