Bernstein Medical - Center for Hair Restoration - Scarring Alopecia
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Q: I am an African-American woman who had a unsuccessful hair transplant. Should I have another one? – S ~ Boston, MA

A: A common cause of a failed hair transplant in African Americans is the surgeon missing a diagnosis of primary scarring alopecia. In this case the scalp is literally attacking the transplanted hair and a repeat hair transplant would also not expected to be successful. This condition is recognized by scaling and redness around the follicles and diagnosed by biopsy. The condition is treated medically rather than by surgery. However, if the cause of the failed transplant was poor surgical technique, then a repeat procedure would be warranted as long at the remaining donor supply was adequate. In all cases, a repeat procedure should not be contemplated unless the cause of the failure can be identified and corrected.

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Q: I’m a 42 year old African-American woman and I’m losing hair on the crown of my head. Would I be a good candidate for a hair transplant? — E.E., Philadelphia, P.A.

A: Hair loss in the crown of an African American female can have several different etiologies, so the first thing to do is to make the right diagnosis. The most common causes of hair loss are androgenic alopecia (AGA) and scarring alopecia, also called ‘Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia,’ or CCCA. A biopsy is often useful to differentiate these two causes of hair loss when the diagnosis is unclear. A biopsy can also identify other, but less common, causes of crown hair loss.

AGA presents with a history of gradual thinning in the front and/or top of the scalp, a relative preservation of the frontal hairline, a positive family history of hair loss and the presence of miniaturization in the thinning areas. Miniaturization, the progressive decrease of the hair shaft’s diameter and length in response to hormones, can be identified using a hand-held device called a densitometer. If the diagnosis is AGA, then a hair transplant can be very successful provided there is enough donor hair.

CCCA presents as a progressive form of scarring alopecia that occurs almost exclusively in African American women. The onset of CCCA is very slow, typically developing over the course of years. CCCA starts near the vertex or top of the scalp and spreads in an outward direction. The involved area is usually smooth and shiny with decreased hair density.

Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia is diagnosed with a scalp biopsy performed in the area of hair loss. Those patients with CCCA are generally not candidates for a hair transplant procedure since the body may reject the transplanted hair. This condition is better treated with oral and injectable anti-inflammatory medications. Surgical treatment for cosmetic benefit may be an option in some cases after the disease has been inactive for many years.

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Q: I received radiation therapy to my scalp two years ago to treat a brain tumor. I lost my hair during treatment and it has not grown back. The doctors said that this treatment might result in permanent hair loss. Is a hair transplant a viable option after radiation treatment? — K.G., Darien, C.T.

A: Unlike chemotherapy which generally causes a reversible shedding of hair (called anagen effluvium), radiation therapy can cause both reversible shedding and the permanent loss of hair follicles (scarring alopecia).  Hair can be successfully transplanted into these scarred areas – but there must be enough donor hair to do so. If the radiotherapy was localized, a hair transplant procedure is often quite effective – although several procedures may be required to achieve adequate coverage of the irradiated areas.

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Q: What is Lichen planopilaris? — G.S., Pleasantville, NY

A: Lichen planopilaris (LPP) is a distinct variant of cicatricial (scarring) alopecia, a group of uncommon disorders which destroy the hair follicles and replace them with scar tissue. LPP is considered to have an autoimmune cause. In this condition, the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles causing scarring and permanent hair loss. Clinically, LPP is characterized by the increased spacing of full thickness terminal hairs (due to follicular destruction) with associated redness around the follicles, scaling and areas of scarred scalp. In contrast, in androgenetic alopecia (AGA) or common baldness, one sees smaller, finer hairs (miniaturization) and non-inflamed, non-scarred scalp. Complicating the picture is that LPP and AGA can occur at the same time – particularly since the latter condition (common baldness) is so prevalent in the population (see photo). And LPP can involve the frontal area of the scalp, mimicking the pattern of common genetic hair loss. Interestingly, the condition is more common in women than in men.

For those considering a hair transplant, ruling out a diagnosis of LPP is particularly important as transplanted hair will often be rejected in patients with LPP. In common baldness, the disease resides in the follicles (i.e., a genetic sensitivity of the follicles to DHT). Since the donor hair follicles remain healthy, even when transplanted to a new location, we call common baldness donor dominant. It is the reason why hair transplantation works in persons with common baldness. In contrast, LPP is a recipient dominant condition. This means that the problem is in the recipient area skin, so if healthy hair is transplanted into an area affected by LPP the hair may be lost.

Because it is so important to rule out suspected LPP when considering a hair transplant and because it is often hard to make a definitive diagnosis on the physical exam alone, a scalp biopsy is often recommended when the diagnosis of LPP is being considered by your doctor. A scalp biopsy is a simple five minute office procedure, performed under local anesthesia. Generally one suture is used for the biopsy site and it heals with a barely detectable mark. It takes about a week to get the results. The biopsy can usually give the doctor a definitive answer on the presence or absence of LPP and guide further therapy. If the biopsy is negative, a hair transplant may be considered. If the biopsy shows lichen planopilaris, then medical therapy would be indicated.

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