A new method developed by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) recently examines the activity of hair follicles and could be useful for testing the effects of different treatments on hair growth.
Baldness, or hair loss, can be caused by many things including aging, hormones or illness. It's more common in men and can be treated with hair transplants or other procedures.
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The Medical Dermatology Program at Massachusetts General Hospital is a full-service dermatology practice that provides care for all skin, hair and nail conditions.
At Mass General Dermatology’s Hair Loss Clinic, our board-certified dermatologists are highly specialized in the diagnosis, management and treatment of alopecia that affects both adolescents and adults.
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What is baldness?
Baldness is hair loss, or absence of hair. It’s also called alopecia. Baldness is usually most noticeable on the scalp, but it can happen anywhere on the body where hair grows.
What causes baldness?
Hair loss can occur for many reasons. Some of the more common causes include the following:
Change in hormones
Illness leading to shedding of hair (called telogen effluvium)
Family history of baldness
But hair loss is not caused by the following:
Poor circulation to the scalp
Generally, the earlier hair loss starts, the more severe it will become.
What are the symptoms of baldness?
Depending on the type, the symptoms of baldness will vary. There are male and female types of baldness:
Male-pattern baldness. Male-pattern baldness is usually inherited. The condition may start at any age. Hair loss often starts on the front, sides, or on the crown of the head. Some men may develop a bald spot or just a receding hairline. Others may lose all of their hair.
Female-pattern baldness. Although less common, female-pattern baldness differs from that of male-pattern baldness in that the hair generally thins all over the head. The hairline is maintained. Usually, the first sign that women may see is a widening of the part. Female-pattern baldness rarely results in total hair loss.
Other causes of hair loss
Alopecia areata. This hair loss disorder is characterized by sudden loss of hair in one particular area. The hair grows back after several months. However, if all body hair is suddenly lost, regrowth may not happen. The exact cause of this type of hair loss is unknown. Researchers believe that this type of hair loss is due to an autoimmune condition. If hair loss is complete on the scalp, it is called alopecia totalis, and if all body hair is lost, it's called alopecia universalis.
Toxic alopecia. Toxic alopecia may happen after a high fever or severe illness. Certain medicines, especially thallium, high doses of vitamin A, retinoids, and cancer medicines may also cause it. Medical conditions, such as thyroid disease, and giving birth may also trigger toxic alopecia. The condition is marked by temporary hair loss.
Trichotillomania (hair pulling). Hair pulling may cause hair loss. This condition is common in young children.
Scarring or cicatricial alopecia. Scarred areas may prevent the hair from growing back. Scarring may happen from burns, injury, or X-ray therapy. However, other types of scarring that may cause hair loss can be caused by diseases. These include lupus, bacterial or fungal skin infections, lichen planus, sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, or skin cancer.
How is baldness diagnosed?
In addition to a medical history and physical exam, a punch biopsy of the skin may help to identify the type of baldness or its cause. In a punch biopsy, a small core of tissue is taken out. A culture may be done if infection is suspected.
How is baldness treated?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about the treatments available and together you will decide on the best treatment for you.
Most forms of baldness have no cure. Some types of baldness will go away without treatment. Treatment may include:
Certain medicines to promote hair growth (such as minoxidil and finasteride)
Skin lifts and grafts
Hair replacement surgery
The interest in hair replacement has gone up over the past several years. There are a number of hair replacement techniques available. But, hair replacement surgery can’t help those with total baldness. Candidates for hair replacement must have a healthy growth of hair at the back and sides of the head. The hair on the back and sides of the head will serve as hair donor areas where grafts and flaps will be taken.
There are 4 primary different types of hair replacement methods, including the following:
Hair transplant. During a hair transplant, the surgeon removes small pieces of hair-bearing scalp from the back or sides of the head to be used as grafts. These grafts are then relocated to a bald or thinning area.
Scalp expansion. In this procedure, a device called a tissue expander is placed underneath a hair-bearing area that is located next to a bald area. After several weeks, the tissue expander causes the skin to grow new skin cells. Another operation is then needed to place the newly expanded skin over the adjacent bald spot.
Flap surgery. Flap surgery is ideal for covering large balding areas. During this procedure a portion of the bald area is removed and a flap of the hair-bearing skin is placed on to the bald area while still attached at one end to its original blood supply.
Scalp reduction. Scalp reduction is done to cover the bald areas at the top and back of the head. It involves first removing the bald scalp. Then sections of the hair-bearing scalp are pulled together filling in the bald area. This can be done alone or with hair transplantation.
What are possible complications of baldness and hair transplantation procedures?
Baldness may lower self-esteem. In addition, there are complications from hair transplantation procedures that include:
Patchy hair growth. Sometimes, the growth of newly placed hair has a patchy look, especially if it's placed next to a thinning area. This can often be fixed with more surgery.
Bleeding or wide scars. Tension on the scalp from some of the scalp reduction techniques can cause wide scars or bleeding.
Grafts not taking. Occasionally, there is a chance that the graft may not "take." If this is the case, surgery must be repeated.
Infection. As with any surgical procedure, there is the risk of infection.
Key points about baldness
Baldness, also known as alopecia, is hair loss, or absence of hair.
Baldness is usually most noticeable on the scalp, but can happen anywhere on the body where hair grows.
Treatment for baldness depends on the type of baldness and its underlying cause.
Most forms of baldness have no cure. Some types of baldness will disappear on their own.
It is important to talk with your healthcare provider about your baldness and how it can be treated.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions or develop a problem or complication.
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