Calling all Redheaded Migraineurs

August 9th, 2009

Now I know Migraine occurs in all human cultures, and people of all hair colors as well as all sorts of other characteristics, but I am interested in conducting a very unscientific study here… and certainly interested in knowing if any real studies have been done of this (I don’t know of any).

An article in the New York Times yesterday entitled The Pain of Being a Redhead discussed several studies which indicate that redheads are resistant to anesthesia, take on average 20% more medication to anesthetize (which has been known anecdotally by anesthesiologists for years), and may have a higher sensitivity to pain than the general population.

I shared this link on Facebook and very shortly got comments from 4 redheaded Migraineur friends! Now the comments were all over the place. Most of us agreed that as Migraineurs we deal with so much pain on a regular basis that we think our pain threshhold is higher rather than lower, though several of us have had the experience of being resistant to anesthetic or pain-relieving drugs. But here’s what I’m curious about – is there a high correlation between red hair and Migraine, or was my little flurry of redheaded Migraine buddies just a fluke?

Tara Parker-Pope, the article’s author, states that

a mutation in the MC1R gene results in the production of a substance called pheomelanin that results in red hair and fair skin. The MC1R gene belongs to a family of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain, and as a result, a mutation in the gene appears to influence the body’s sensitivity to pain.

If we redheads have a genetically altered sensitivity to pain, are we more prone to chronic pain conditions? I have no idea – but I do wonder!

- Megan Oltman

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Posted in Medicine, Musings, Science | Comments (10)

  • MaxJerz

    I read this to DF (a natural redhead) and he scoffed a bit. Then again, I’m not sure how much dental work he’s had other than getting his wisdom teeth removed.

    I’m not a natural redhead, but my mom is, so it’s something interesting to ponder. She definitely has Migraines, more severe than my sister’s (a brunette) but less severe than mine. Maybe I’m one of those brunettes with the gene mutation. Who knows?

    Be well,

  • Emily

    Interesting premise….

    My brown (and now grey) hair is a mixture of pure dark auburn strands and brown and I had migraines from 17 until 45. My hair would turn red with sunlight exposure…But my sister (whose hair was coal black) had migraines too, although hers started in her 40′s during perimenopause.

    I think that my migraines were the fault of heredity and hormones. The fact that the migraines disappeared when my ovaries were removed tells me that my hair color had nothing to do with it! But I may not be a good test subject since I am only partially red haired.

    We are all different….and I have a different headache problem now – maybe its caused by grey hair??? I may have to call Miss Clairol in as a consultant! :)

  • admin

    Well Emily I am in no way implying that red hair causes Migraines – as I said, I’m well aware that Migraine occurs across human cultures, in all hair/skin colors, etc. Just wondering if there could be some level of correlation with the pain issue.

    I had several people who get their red from a bottle reply too – well, what can we make of that? ;-)

    - Megan

  • Lisa Balsom

    Well, my daughter is a red head and she has suffered from migraines for about half of her life (she is 16) She also has the genetic link. My battle began when I was pregnant with her 17 years ago.

  • admin

    Lisa – Uggh – Migraines when pregnant? So sorry to hear it! I was one of the lucky ones who was Migraine free when pregnant and breast-feeding. But not at any other period since adolescence!

    - Megan

  • Debbie Domsic

    I am a natural redhead and I have know about the info that you refer to for many years. I actually heard about it first from an anesthesiologist when I was having surgery, and yes I am one who is “resistant” to anesthesia. I also was one who had excess bleeding after giving birth, also a known redhead issue. My migraines started when I was in high school but really became an issue when I was pregnant with the first child. Since then they have never went away. 5 years ago I had a benign brain tumor removed and still I have had no relief. I have been trying everything I can for over 15 years to no real avail. In summary I would have to say that in my opinion being a red head has to at least play some factor in the migraine experience. I think it probably plays a more important role in the severity of the disease as opposed to the pre-disposition to it.

  • admin

    Debbie I think that’s a good analysis. As Migraineurs we are blessed or cursed with a highly sensitive nervous system. As redheads we already know we’re sensitive to the sun, and it seems we are sensitive to pain as well. A kind of double whammy. It has helped me through the years to remind myself that I am a sensitive person – that was never my desire, but it’s the way it is! Studies like this can be helpful emotionally when they make us feel less alone or crazy, just affirmed in our experience.

    - Megan

  • Georgie

    I am 37 yr old red head and suffered my first migrain at 12yrs, and had terrible clusters of them until 17yrs (the focal migrain, with vision like looking through white noise on a tv, then slurred speech, numbness down sides of body then the vomitus thumping headache with light sensitivity). Had my next one in my 20′s, and have had a few in my early 30′s. Also, that gene mutation in the MC1R can be highly responsible for melanoma skin cancer. I had a melanoma removed on my back at 24yrs, and cervical cancer at 25yrs. In my early 20′s also had many BCC and SCC skin cancers removed. Also, we tend to hemorrhage very easily. We are known ‘bleeders’. Out of my four labors, I had two post partum hemorrhages. Great! We luck out genetically!

  • Kirsten

    I’m a redhead…and was searching for this same question when I found your blog. I have issues with anesthesia. It takes me easily 3x the normal amount. I have issues w/ pain killers working. I do though have a VERY high pain threshold. The studies I’ve seen about “our” pain tolerance has always related to temperature; of which I have very low tolerance for temperature variations. I’m only comfortable between around 67F and 69F. Outside of that small window I’m miserable! I too suffer migraines, horrible, difficult migraines. I have between 19 and 26 a month. They started when I was 20. I also have optical migraines. Mine are weather related. Barometric pressure shifts send me over the edge. And with weather patterns changing so drastically the last 3 to 5 years, mine migraines have worsened. There’s my 2 cents towards your unscientific study. :) I’ll keep searching on this same question.

  • Tracy

    This is many years past your original post, but I came across it when looking for an answer to the question you posed. My daughter, a red head and only 2.5 years old, often complains her head hurts. I’ve wondered if she just caught on to someone saying that or if her head really does hurt. I haven’t noticed much of a difference in her pain threshold when it comes to other things in comparison to my older daughter, 5.5 years old. I know that red heads are more sensitive to pain. My husband is a red head and has always hated the dentist until we found one that worked with him on his pain tolerance when getting cavities filled. I wish I could find a more scientific study on this. So far a smaller does of children’s Tylenol seems to help with her hurting head.

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