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Can Surgery Cause Hair Loss?

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 21 Jun 2011 | comments*Discuss
Surgery Hair Loss Hormones Stress

If you are awaiting surgery, you may well be concerned about stories you have heard of people's hair falling out after treatment. This can occur immediately, but more often it happens after a period of about three months. It isn't always preventable, but it is temporary, and understanding the processes behind it can make it much easier to cope with.

Stress and Hair Loss

One of the major factors in surgery-related hair loss is Stress. When we are stressed, our bodies divert nutrients to our hearts, lungs and muscles, preparing us to deal with threats. This means that the hair can miss out and be weakened as a result. In severe cases, hair follicles can stop producing new hair altogether.

It's difficult to avoid some stress when you're preparing for surgery, but there are things you can do to stop it getting the better of you. Make sure you set aside time in your day to relax and take part in activities you find calming. Give yourself little treats when you start feeling bad. Discuss any fears about your surgery with your friends, family or doctor, and make sure you also find time for conversations about positive things.

To reduce the effects of stress on your hair, try to eat a more nutritious diet. Extra fruit and vegetables will help. Foods high in zinc and (if you are female) iron, are particularly good (for more information, read our article Diet And Hair Loss on this site).

Hormonal Changes and Hair Loss

Just as hair loss can be triggered by Stress Hormones, it can happen as a result of disruption to your normal hormonal cycle. This effect is usually most pronounced in women but it can also affect men. Prolonged period of bed rest after surgery can affect this cycle, as can some of the drugs you may be given to help you heal after your operation.

There are various ways to minimise hormonal disruption. It can help simply to be upright more often, even if all you can do is sit upright in bed. Exercise is beneficial, so ask your doctor if there are any small exercises you can do even when your movements are restricted or you need more rest than usual. It also helps to get back to eating in as regular a pattern as possible in the days after the surgery is complete.

Anaesthesia and Hair Loss

The scientific evidence as to whether or not anaesthesia can cause hair loss is inconclusive, but lots of patients and quite a few doctors believe there is a link. If this is the case, it is more likely to be an issue during prolonged periods of anaesthesia, and indeed there is less anecdotal evidence about hair loss following short operations.

Some research suggests that because anaesthesia can slow down cell division, it can nudge hair follicles, which rely on fast cell division, into their resting phase. This phase is part of their natural cycle but normally follicles enter it at different times, so you grow new hair as you lose old hair. The effect of them all resting at once can be suddenly thinner hair a few months later. The good news is that they will soon switch back to their irregular pattern, so your hair will grow normally.

Other Factors

Other factors involved in hair loss after surgery can include Positional Alopecia, which is rare but occurs in some people when the head is kept in one position for a long time so that there's a lot of weight through one patch of hair follicles. When you sleep you will naturally move around, but during surgery your movements may be controlled to let the doctors do their work. This is only a factor in operations lasting more than eight hours.

Any surgery represents an increased risk of infection, and the types of bacteria that often infect people after surgery, while they can be treated quickly, can cause sudden hair loss. A few unfortunate people also suffer hair loss as a result of allergic reactions to antibiotics used to keep such infections from spreading.

Ultimately, there is little you can do about post-surgical hair loss, but the good news is that it doesn't happen to everyone and, when it does, you should be back to normal within just a few months.

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