Docs: Treat sensitive redheads gingerly

By Jessica Fargen / Making the rounds
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Redheads fear the dentist and dental pain more than brunettes due to a gene mutation that makes numbing drugs less effective on them, according to a study that bolsters the belief that the flame-haired are more sensitive.

"Redheads are afraid of going to the dentist," said Dr. Daniel I. Sessler, chairman of the Department of Outcomes Research at the Cleveland Clinic. "Presumably this is because they sense more pain. They are resistant to local anesthetics and they've had bad experiences at the dentist."

A gene mutation that affects hair color - found mostly in people with red tresses and fair skin - also affects sensitivity to anesthesia, previous studies have shown.

Sessler's study found that 46 percent of redheads - twice that of dark-haired subjects - avoided going to the dentist, according to research in the July edition of the Journal of the American Dental Association. A 2004 study found that redheads required 20 percent more anesthesia.

"That study was based on urban legend that redheads were difficult to anesthetize," Sessler explained.

A follow-up study in 2005 found redheads more resistant to local numbing agents. After those studies, Sessler was deluged with letters from redheads who told him they feared the dentist because of the pain involved. Those letters led to the most recent study.

Dentist Richard Niederman, director of the center for evidence-based dentistry at the Forsyth Institute in Boston, said redheads who fear the dentist could take solace in the findings. "For redheads it's some comfort to know there's a potential physiological or genetic reason for that," he said.

The study urges dentists to evaluate red-haired patients for dental-care anxiety, and possibly increase Novocaine. Niederman urged caution on adding Novocaine. "If you know that redheads tend to be more anxious or suffer more pain, it's a word of caution," he said. "It's like a little red flag to go along with their red hair."