Hair loss is a problem that affects a significant percentage of men, and a surprisingly large number of women as well. Scientists have spent a lot of time looking for the causes and reasons for this phenomenon, and much has been learned that has been helpful in the attempt to find antidotes and treatments for this condition.
What Causes Hair Loss?
Genetic factors lead to the progressive degeneration of hair growth in both men and women, and the result is hair loss that occurs in a gradual but predictable way. Androgenetic alopecia is the official name for male pattern baldness, which is by far the most frequently diagnosed type of hair loss. Most of the attempts to develop treatments for baldness have focused on this condition.
Sometimes, the source of hair loss can be found in the immune system. Alopecia areata is the name for a type of autoimmune disorder where the immune system actually attacks the follicles of hair as if they were some kind of foreign invader to the body. The reasons why the immune system malfunctions in this way is not well understood, but the effects of this response can cause hair loss in other areas of the body besides the scalp.
Emotional and physical stress of various types can sometimes lead to sudden and unexplained hair loss. Oftentimes this hair loss does not occur until several weeks after a traumatic event or set of circumstances, and as a result, this type of condition can seem very mysterious. The name for hair loss brought on by stress or trauma is telogen effluvium, which refers to the fact that the individual hairs on the scalp of the affected person have started entering the terminal – or telogen - stage of their life cycle prematurely.
There is a type of hair loss called traction alopecia, which refers to hair loss that results from sustained physical pressure. This condition is actually the result of hairstyles that place a disproportionate amount of pull on the roots of the hair, which can eventually cause hair to start falling out. Some popular hairstyles that can lead to this condition include ponytails, braids, dreadlocks and pig tails.
There are other reasons why hair can fall out unexpectedly or suddenly. Drugs used in chemotherapy, as blood thinners, or for depression, gout, high blood pressure or heart problems can sometimes cause hair loss as a side effect. Nutritional deficiencies can also lead to baldness, as healthy hair needs nutrients, such as vitamins A, B6, B12 and C, as well as copper, zinc and iron in, order to maintain its vitality. Some medical conditions can ultimately lead to significant hair loss – anorexia, lupus and diabetes are disorders or diseases that can have this effect.
Diagnosing Hair Loss
An experienced dermatologist can diagnose male pattern baldness through the use of a medical instrument called a densitometer. This device allows doctors to examine and measure the hair down to the microscopic level, making it possible to accurately diagnose shrinking and degeneration of the hair follicles.
In addition to the use of a densitometer to find female pattern baldness, doctors also use methods of diagnosis in women that involve the removal of hair samples to look for signs of telogen effluvium. Chronic telogen effluvium is a hair loss condition that manifests in women between the ages of 30 and 60, and it can be missed if steps are not taken to search for it specifically. An excess of the male hormone androgen can sometimes be implicated in baldness or hair thinning in women, and a blood test can be performed that will detect this excess.
Some of the diseases that can cause hair loss are detectable through screening, including lupus, anemia, thyroid disease and nutritional deficiencies. Doctors looking for the reasons behind hair loss – especially if its onset was relatively sudden – may perform screening tests to try and see if one of these conditions is present.
Types of Hair Loss
As previously mentioned, the most common type of baldness is androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness. This inherited type of hair loss can be recognized by its two primary characteristics: a receding hairline and a gradual loss of hair from the top of the head. This condition can manifest in women as well; although, it is obviously much more common in men.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that shows up as patches of hair missing at various spots on the scalp, plus a more generalized thinning of the hair all over the head. With this type of hair loss, the immune system attacks the hair follicles and disrupts their normal functioning.
Involution alopecia is hair loss that occurs naturally with age, as the hair production ability of the human body begins to atrophy. Over time, the ratio of hairs that are in the quiescent or telogen stage increases, and hair loss is the inevitable result. At this point, the hair just keeps getting thinner and thinner.
Telogen effluvium is another type of condition that can cause hair loss. Related to physical or emotional stress, this kind of scalp disorder causes sudden and massive hair loss, and may be hard to diagnose since stress can be a somewhat subjective condition. Some of the types of physical and emotional stresses known to cause sudden hair loss are childbirth, drug abuse, eating disorders, fever, anemia and emotional conditions like anxiety disorder or panic attacks.
Trichotillomania is an obsessive-compulsive style disorder that causes its victims to pull out their own hair in sometimes quite large amounts. This disorder usually strikes in young women, and those who have this condition may deny what they are doing or not even realize they are doing it.
Hair Loss Treatments
The most well-known over-the-counter treatment for hair loss is minoxidil, also known by the brand name Rogaine. Originally used to alleviate high blood pressure, it was discovered that minoxidil sometimes caused new hair to grow on the head as a side effect. Rogaine now comes in the form of a topical solution meant to be massaged into the top of the scalp. It usually takes four months for any new hair growth to manifest, and after that the treatments must continue indefinitely or the new hair will quickly fall out. Also, minoxidil needs to be used fairly early in the onset of hair loss if it is to work effectively.
Propecia (finasteride) is only available by prescription. Taken orally in tablet form, Propecia is used primarily to treat the symptoms of male pattern baldness. It can take up to eight months for finasteride to show its effects, but the hair it produces is usually thicker and healthier than what is produced by minoxidil. This drug works by interfering with the body's conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a substance that plays a significant role in the etiology of male pattern baldness.
Natural supplements have shown great promise as treatments for baldness. Saw palmetto, for example, is a small palm plant that is native to Georgia and Florida, and has shown the same ability to disrupt the formation of DHT as Propecia. This is probably the most popular supplement used to fight hair loss, but there are other supplements available that contain a mix of various herbs, vitamins and minerals. Procerin for men and Sephren for women are examples of two popular natural supplements that consist of a large variety of nutrients that have each demonstrated an ability to help restore health and vitality to hair.
A final option for treating hair loss is the most drastic: hair restoration surgery. This involves the removal of hair from parts of the scalp where it grows thickly and using it to create grafts of hair follicles that can be transplanted to areas where hair has been lost. This kind of surgery has been streamlined and improved a lot over the years and can now be accomplished on an outpatient basis with the use of local anesthesia.
Only the Beginning
Much has been learned about how to combat hair loss. But much more needs to be learned about the deeper processes that can lead to baldness in the first place. The search for a cure for baldness has been going on for centuries, and those who suffer from this condition can rest assured that what has been discovered so far is only the beginning of increasing awareness and availability of additional treatments in the future.
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