Study finds redheaded patients more fearful

Red-haired patients are more likely to fear dentists, U.S. researchers reported in this month's Journal of the American Dental Association (July 2009, Vol. 140:7, pp. 896-905).

The researchers, from the universities of Louisville, Hartford, and Colorado and the Cleveland Clinic, surveyed 144 patients (67 natural red-haired and 77 dark-haired) about their anxiety about dentistry, their fear of dental pain, and whether they had avoided dental visits. Then they tested the patients' genes.

They found that 65 of the 67 natural red-haired patients and 20 of the 77 dark-haired patients had variants of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene. In previous studies, these researchers found that people with variants of the gene are resistant to anesthesia. Other researchers have linked anxiety in general to the melanocortin system.

In the current study, the researchers found that red-haired patients and MC1R-variant patients were twice as likely to report avoiding the dentist and felt significantly more anxiety about dental care than patients with dark hair or without the gene variant.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers found the MC1R variants were the significant factor -- not hair color itself -- in determining the dental fear. In other words, MC1R variations apparently increase the likelihood of having both dental anxiety and red hair.

"Dentists should evaluate all patients, but especially those with natural red hair, for dental care-related anxiety and anxiety sensitivity, and use appropriate modalities to manage the patient's anxiety," the researchers concluded.

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