Hair transplantation is a cosmetic procedure performed on men and occasionally on women who have significant hair loss, thinning hair, or bald spots where hair no longer grows. In men, hair loss and baldness are most commonly due to genetic factors and age. Male pattern baldness, in which the hairline gradually recedes to expose more and more of the forehead, is the most common form. Men may also experience a gradual thinning of hair at the crown, or very top of the skull. For women, hair loss is more commonly due to hormonal changes and is more likely to be a thinning of hair from the entire head. Transplants can also be performed to replace hair lost due to burns, injury, or diseases of the scalp.
Hair transplantation surgery is performed by a physician with specialty training in plastic surgery or, less commonly, dermatology. Each surgery lasts two to three hours during which approximately 250 grafts will be transplanted. A moderately balding man may require up to 1,000 grafts to get good coverage of a bald area; consequently, a series of surgeries scheduled three to four months apart is usually required. Individuals may be completely awake during the procedure with just a local anesthetic drug applied to numb the areas of the scalp. Some persons may be given a drug to help them relax or may be given an anesthetic drug that puts them to sleep.
The most common transplant procedure uses a thin strip of hair and scalp from the back of the head. This strip is cut into smaller clumps of five or six hairs. Tiny slits are made in the balding area of the scalp, and a clump is implanted into each slit. The doctor performing the surgery will attempt to recreate a natural-looking hairline along the forehead. Minigrafts, micrografts, or implants of single hair follicles can be used to fill in between larger implant sites and can provide a more natural-looking hairline. The implants will also be arranged so that thick and thin hairs are interspersed and the hair will grow in the same direction.
Another type of hair replacement surgery is called scalp reduction. This involves removing some of the skin from the hairless area and "stretching" some of the nearby hair-covered scalp over the cut-away area.
Although hair transplantation is a fairly simple procedure, some risks are associated with any surgery. It is important to inform the physician about any medications currently being used and about previous allergic reactions to drugs or anesthetic agents. People with blood-clotting disorders also need to inform their physician before the procedure is performed.
It is important to find a respected, well-established, experienced surgeon and discuss the expected results prior to the surgery. The candidate may need blood tests to check for bleeding or clotting problems and is usually asked not to take aspirin products before the surgery. The type of anesthesia used will depend on how extensive the surgery will be and the setting in which it will be performed. The candidate may be awake during the procedure, but is usually given medication to cause relaxation. A local anesthetic drug that numbs the area will be applied or injected into the skin at the surgery sites.
The areas involved in transplantation may need to be bandaged overnight. People can return to normal activities within a day. Strenuous activities should be avoided in the first few days after the surgery. On rare occasions, the implants can be ejected from the scalp during vigorous exercise. There may be some swelling, bruising, headache, and discomfort around the graft areas and around the eyes. These symptoms can usually be controlled with a mild pain reliever such as aspirin. Scabs may form at the graft sites and should not be scraped off. There may be some numbness at the sites, but it will diminish within two to three months.
Although there are rare cases of infection or scarring, the major risk is that the grafted area might not look the way the patient expected it to look.