Redheads more likely to fear a visit to the dentist, Cleveland Clinic researcher finds

by Kaye Spector/Plain Dealer Reporter
Friday July 31, 2009, 8:50 AM


Redheads feel more pain, study says, tying genetic marker to resistance to anesthesia Redheads -- the natural ones, that is -- fear the dentist more than the rest of us, a new study says. With good reason.

Building on his earlier research that carrot-tops are resistant to general and local anesthesia and more sensitive to pain, Dr. Daniel Sessler, professor and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic's Outcomes Research, and other researchers interviewed 144 people who were natural redheads and brunets about anxiety, fear of dental pain and whether they avoided dental care.

The result? The 85 people with the genetic variant associated with red hair -- some of whom had brown hair -- reported significantly more dental care-related anxiety and fear of dental pain than the others.

Consequently, they were more than twice as likely to avoid dental care, even after researchers controlled for general trait anxiety and gender (women are more likely to report feeling more pain).

Redheads have a genetic variant that is responsible for their red hair. Researchers have found this mutation also stimulates a brain receptor related to pain sensitivity. Sessler says the study, published this month in the Journal of the American Dental Association, shows that dentists should pay special attention to those with naturally red hair and adjust accordingly.

"This is one more piece of evidence that redheads sense more pain and that it seems to have an effect on their lives," he said.

ADA spokesman Matthew Messina, a dentist in Fairview Park, said that although none of his titian-tressed patients seemed more sensitive than the others, the information is useful. "This raises our awareness of something that might be involved," Messina said. "At least I think it will make more of the average everyday practitioner thinking about it.

Sessler said he and his fellow anesthesiologists suspected for years that titian-haired patients were difficult to anesthetize but until recently had no data to back up their suspicions. His study in 2004 suggested that redheads need about 20 percent more anesthesia than others. ?Betsie Norris, the redheaded executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, said the most recent study seems to support what she has long experienced -- that doctors make snap assessments based on her hair color.

Doctors have told Norris on different occasions that her hair color was a clue to everything from migraines to complaints about slow recovery from anesthesia.

The former nurse, however, keeps up her regular appointments with her dentist in Collinwood. "For the most part, I don't like to go," Norris said. "But I'm too conscientious to avoid it."