Laurie began to feel self-conscious about her fine
"see-through" hair during high school. By 30, she was having hair
extensions sewn into her natural hair. That worked for awhile, but the pressure
on existing strands eventually led to bald spots.
"I knew what was in store for me," says Laurie (not her
real name), a sales executive in her mid-40s. "My sisters both have thin
hair. My mother wears a hairpiece. Baldness is in our family genes."
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She spotted a notice for a talk by a dermatologist who
specialized in hair transplants for men and women. Laurie skipped the lecture
and headed straight for a consult. "Getting a hair transplant had never
occurred to me. I didn't even know a woman could have one." Not that a hair
transplant seemed like a desirable thing -- all the men she'd ever seen with
them looked "so, well, pluggy."
No More "Pluggy" Look
Gone are the days when a hair transplant made a middle-aged
scalp look like a field of newly planted corn. New technology and improved
surgical techniques are transforming the hair transplant industry.
"Large grafting procedures that gave transplants their
plug-like appearance are a thing of the past," says Michael Reed, MD, who
has been performing hair transplants at New York University Medical Center's
hair clinic since the early 1970s.
The new methods allow for more hairs in each skin graft to be
placed between existing hairs, promoting greater hair density, says Reed. At
the same time, more precise instrumentation permits surgeons to work faster
with less worry about tissue injury. This has turned hair transplants -- one of
the most tedious and labor-intensive of cosmetic surgery procedures -- into
minor day surgery. A typical session, or "megasession" (as
dermatological surgeons call it), lasts two to three hours. Other techniques to
reverse hair loss include laser surgery, scalp reduction, and scalp expansion
Quicker, more effective procedures have made hair transplants a
more attractive option for women. In the 1990s, women made up less than 5% of
Reed's hair transplant practice. Today, says Reed, an assistant professor of
clinical dermatology at New York University School of Medicine, women represent
up to 30% of his clients.
Laurie was nervous when she had her first transplant in 1997
but was pleasantly surprised to find the procedure quite painless. "I was
given a local anesthetic. It was no worse than the dentist's office. I hardly
felt a thing," she says.
Next, her surgeon removed a tiny strip of skin (1 x 1.5 x 12
centimeters) from the back of her scalp, an area of relatively dense hair for
even the baldest people called the "donor site." In one session, she
was able to have about 400 grafts of skin -- containing two to four hairs each
-- redistributed from the back of her head to the front and top. "It took
awhile for regrowth, " Laurie says. (Typically, transplanted hair sheds
within the first weeks or months and has to grow back). "But within four to
six months, I saw a huge difference."