Q: I have read a lot on the forums about hair transplant reversal and hair transplant repairs. Are they the same thing, if not, what is the difference? Can you reverse a hair transplant? — K.J. ~ Park Slope, N.Y.
A: A “hair transplant repair” refers to techniques that improve the appearance of a poorly executed procedure or one performed with outdated methods. A “hair transplant reversal” refers to techniques that enable the individual to appear as if no hair restoration surgery had been performed. Although the techniques in attempting to perform a repair or a reversal may be similar, the ultimate goals of each are quite different. It is important to understand that although significant improvement can often be achieved, perfect repairs and/or full reversals are generally not possible.
The main reasons for seeking a repair include; large grafts transplanted to the frontal hairline giving an unnatural, “pluggy” appearance, a frontal hairline placed too far forward, hair placed in the wrong direction, and donor and recipient site scarring. Outdated procedures such as scalp reductions and flaps also need to be repaired.
If the transplanted grafts are large (“hair plugs”), it is possible to surgically excise these grafts, microscopically dissect them into smaller follicular unit grafts, and re-transplant them into the scalp in a more natural-looking, aesthetic way. After these large grafts are removed, the sites are sutured closed and heal with very fine, often imperceptible, white scars. Hair plug removal is often followed by one or more sessions of FUT or FUE in order to harvest additional hair for use in camouflaging any remaining plugs or improving the appearance of the region where the plugs had previously been. These combined repairs can lead to excellent outcomes.
If the grafts at the hairline are not large but are placed too low or too broadly, it is possible to use laser hair removal and/or tweezing to remove these hairs. Repeated treatments may be necessary until the hair ceases to grow back at these locations. Additionally, hair which was placed in a direction different from the way hair naturally grows will usually need to be removed.
Another challenge in hair transplant repair is fixing widened donor scars that had resulted from poorly performed FUT/strip procedures. These scars are permanent and may be visible if the hair is not worn long enough. Scars from FUT procedures can be repaired by harvesting hair from the surrounding donor area (using FUE) and transplanting these follicular unit grafts into the scarred tissue.
Scalp micro-pigmentation (SMP), a permanent micro-tattoo, may be useful to further camouflage these linear scars. SMP can also be used to improve the look of the stippled scars of FUE in patients. This can occur with overharvesting, when patients wear their hair too short, or when the balding is more extensive than anticipated and extends into the harvested area.
A hair transplant reversal, in theory, has the goal of having the person look as though a hair transplant had never been performed. While reversing a hair transplant completely is not possible, the techniques previously discussed can be utilized to achieve a number of important things. The donor site scarring can be minimized and/or camouflaged and the smaller follicular unit grafts in the recipient zone can often be removed without leaving behind any visible scarring of the underlying skin. What is not possible is to restore the person’s density to a pre-procedure level as improperly performed transplants always result in wasted hair.
Q: After an old hair transplant using plugs, can you use lasers or electrolysis to remove the transplanted hair? — N.C. ~ Newark, N.J.
A: You can remove the hair in plugs with electrolysis, but it is difficult since the scarring distorts the architecture of the hair shaft and makes it hard to insert the electrolysis needle. Laser hair removal is a far more efficient way of removing the hair but takes multiple treatments. However, the problem with either of these techniques is that the hair is destroyed and the underlying scarred scalp is not improved. In fact, it is made more visible when the hair has been removed.
Our preferred method of repair is to completely remove the plugs, dissect out the individual follicular units from those plugs and then re-implant them in the proper location and direction. In this way, the hair can be reused and the appearance of underlying scarred scalp can be improved, as well as camouflaged with new hair.
A: We do not always harvest additional hair in repair procedures, but we do if possible because it can improve the aesthetic outcome by adding additional density and camouflage. This is called Combined Repair. As for whether we use FUT or FUE in repair procedures, the answer depends on the clinical situation. For example, a loose scalp favors FUT. If the person wants to wear their hair short, that favors FUE. If donor scars from the plugs need to be removed, that favors FUT. If scarring in the donor area needs to be camouflaged rather than removed, that favors FUE.
Q: I was wondering if it was possible to use Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE) on the old plugs instead of graft excision. — N.B. ~ Westport, C.T.
A: Graft excision generally works better than FUE in removing old plugs and mini-grafts. The reason is that, in these grafts, the hair is not aligned due to the scar tissue that tugs on, and bends the hair. Because the hair direction is altered from the scar tissue, there is much more damage when the grafts are removed with the tiny FUE punches. In addition, FUE only removes a very small part of the plug. If the hair in the plug is pointing in the wrong direction or the plug is in the wrong location, the entire graft needs to be removed.
Another benefit of graft excision is that we can remove the underlying scar tissue and improve the appearance of the underlying skin. In FUE, only a tiny bit of the scar tissue is removed and, since FUE holes are left open, FUE actually causes its own scarring. With graft excision, the sites are sutured closed so some scar tissue is removed and the quality of the underlying skin looks more natural.
Q: When you remove hair plugs and re-use the hair from the grafts, what is the survival rate for those follicular units? — W.B. ~ Upper West Side, N.Y.
A: The survival rate is close to that when grafts harvested via FUT or FUE. However, if the grafts are placed into a significantly scarred scalp, this can have a negative impact on growth.
Is it appropriate to call hair transplant repair a “re-do” of a hair transplant? This question is the basis of a discussion Dr. Bernstein had with a UK-based hair restoration physician. Read on for the full exchange.
Question submitted by Nilofer Farjo:
In the last couple of years I have heard the term “redo” being used in the UK and more recently at an International conference. This term is used to describe a surgical case where the patient is unhappy with their result and the surgeon “redoes” the equivalent number of grafts or partially redoes the number at no charge. It seems that this has become normal practice for some hair surgeons and begs the question of why there are so many of these cases that it has now crept into everyday vocabulary. I admit that I get one or two cases per year with less than expected density which usually resolves given extra time but occasionally this isn’t the situation and the results are not as good as expected. This situation certainly is neither commonplace nor expected. So in the “redo” scenario are the doctors performing less than optimum surgery or are the patients being given the wrong expectations?
I had one such patient attend for consultation a week ago. He had 2 operations at 2 different clinics and he came to me because they both failed. His first operation was an FUE procedure and the second a strip surgery. On examining the patient he had sparsely placed grafts in his forelock with little native hair left and was completely bald behind. He had never been prescribed medication. I told him that his transplant(s) hadn’t failed but that a number of things had happened: he probably got shock loss after each surgery, he continued to thin in the forelock and crown and he wasn’t advised properly. I asked if he had returned to the clinics. No to the FUE as it was overseas, yes to the second clinic where they offered a “redo”. The patient refused as “the first operation didn’t work.”
So my question is should we be actively doing something to discourage the use of terms such as “the redo” that seem to me to not only admit to liability for a bad result but to make it an expected rather than an uncommon outcome?
Response by Robert M. Bernstein:
In my opinion, the term “re-do” is quite descriptive and is fine as is. The issue at hand is not the terminology, but the cause of the patient’s dissatisfaction. I think that the question Nilofer poses – “So in the redo scenario are the doctors performing less than optimum surgery or are the patients being given the wrong expectations?” – speaks to the crux of the problem. Unfortunately, the problems that can lead to a patient being unhappy are many.
In the initial physical examination, problems result when there is an inadequate assessment of a person’s donor area and factors such as low density, high miniaturization, an ascending posterior hairline, or a very tight scalp, are overlooked. Problems may also arise from a cursory assessment of the recipient area, so that severe solar change (that can compromise skin elasticity and vascular perfusion) goes unnoticed.
In the surgical planning problems may be caused by placing the frontal hairline too low or too broad (often in response to a demanding patient) or trying to cover an area of scalp (such as the crown) that is too great for a given donor supply. It also includes operating on a patient too young for the surgeon to adequately determine the stability of the donor supply or even to adequately assess the maturity of the patient’s decision making process.
In the discussion with the patient, problems include over-promising density from the transplant, underestimating potential future hair loss, and denying the existence of shock hair loss as an unavoidable risk of the procedure.
The intra-operative problems and poor surgical techniques that can contribute to poor growth, or cosmetically unappealing hair transplants, are well documented in the medical literature and too numerous to detail in this brief commentary. However, it is has been my experience that, with some exceptions, doctors trying to “fix” their own work usually make the same mistakes again and again.
The reason I am fond of the term “re-do” is that, without a detailed explanation by the doctor as to the exact problem (and the way to correct it), the term implies that the patient will get the same treatment the second time around. If the doctor knows how to correct the problem, then he should have done it right the first time. And if it were truly an act of nature, then what would keep those “natural” forces from acting the same way again?
If I were a patient with an unsuccessful hair transplant and the doctor was kind enough to offer me a re-do, I would graciously thank him… and then head for the hills.
Q: I had a hair transplant in 2004 of mostly plugs. The plugs are in an angle which doesn’t really look natural, far from it. I have lost a lot more hair since I did the hair restoration procedure. I regret ever doing a hair transplant. I prefer to reverse the surgery. I have read a lot about repair work on the net, and I have come to the conclusion that using FUE to take the plugs out, and put them back into the scar might be an option, but it may just make it worse on top. Also I can do electrolysis to remove the plugs, might be better because the possibility of scarring is smaller, and as I already have a lot.
A: If you had plugs, then a graft excision with suturing will generally give a better result than FUE, since a graft excision removes the underling scar tissue as well as the plug. FUE only removes the follicles, but leaves the underlying scar tissue. In addition, the shape of the follicles in scar tissue is often distorted, making extraction difficult and leading to more transaction (damage to follicles).
Electrolysis is very difficult in a scarred scalp and also would not remove scar tissue. Laser hair removal with a diode or Alexandrite laser is generally a better option than electrolysis (it is also faster and less expensive), but like electrolysis and FUE, they do nothing to improve the appearance of underlying scar issue.
Q: I would like to have the donor area from an old hair transplant repaired so it does not show the scar when I cut my hair shorter. What are my options?
A: Widened scars can be improved in two ways: they can be re-excised to make the scar finer, or hair can be placed into the scar to make it less visible.
Excising a scar works best when the original incision was closed with poor surgical techniques. In this case, using better closure methods can improve the scar. When the scar is the result of a person being a naturally “poor healer,” a wide scar will be the result – regardless of how the incision was closed.
I often approach the problem by excising a small area first, to see if I can decrease the width of the scar. If so, I would then proceed to excise the rest of the scar. If not, I would obtain hair using follicular unit extraction (FUE) — extracting hair in follicular units directly form the scalp — and place this hair into the scar. The hair placed in the scar can also be obtained from the edges of a partially excised scar.
If a wide scar that is thickened (called a hypertrophic scar) is also excised, it will usually reoccur and may result in an even worse scar. Because of this, thick scars should be flattened with injections of cortisone prior to removing. This will decrease the chance of a recurrence.
Flattening the scar is also important to permit the growth of newly transplanted follicular unit grafts.
For more on this topic, please see the page on Fixing Scars.
Q: Can dermabrasion help eliminate the circular edges of raised plug grafts caused by old hair transplants? Is this similar to the suturing and excision look?
A: Although dermabrasion can flatten elevated edges, it will not eliminate the round, white, circular scars that result from old punch graft hair transplants. The scarring in these procedures goes all the way through the dermis to the fat. Dermabrasion can only go down to the upper part of the dermis without causing further scarring.
Graft excision with suturing removes the plug as well as the underlying scar and eliminates the tell-tale circular marks of the older hair restoration procedures.
Q: I had several prior hair transplants that left me with a pluggy look, I was hoping to re-utilize the removed hair and re-implant it, perhaps in the front as a new, more recessed hairline. It is possible?
A: The hair from the excised grafts is always re-implanted.
The grafts that are removed are dissected into individual follicular units and then placed back in the recipient area in a more natural distribution and angle. See Patient LKE’s before and after photos in the Hair Transplant Repair Photo Gallery.
Q: I had an old hair transplant and I’m hoping to remove these plugs and of course am concerned how much additional scarring would result. I’m wondering if removal of the total hair plugs (which are perhaps 2 or 3 mm in diameter) by coring them out would result in a lot of additional scarring.
A: It will significantly reduce the scarring.
The reason is that the round disc of scar tissue at the bottom of the graft from prior plug hair transplants will be removed and the normal skin edges will be brought together resulting in a barely perceptible fine line scar.
See the Graft Excision in Hair Transplants page.
Q: I recently had a hair transplant procedure done in Florida and it has been about 8 months. When I am in direct overhead light and when sunlight is behind me, I see many tiny holes that are not visible under normal light. I know these are where they placed the transplanted hair but need to know if there is a way to remove these tiny holes. I am obviously not getting any answers from the doctor that performed the hair restoration. I am wondering if dermal fillers, dermabrasion, or laser treatment would work to fix this and if so, do you offer these treatments?
A: This condition is often referred to as pitting and occurs when grafts are placed below the surface of the skin. It is more common with large grafts rather than small ones and is almost never seen in Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT).
In general, visible holes can result from mini-micrografting hair transplant procedures where the grafts (and thus the recipient sites needed to hold them) are larger than approximately 1.2mm. Recipients sites smaller than 1.2 rarely leave any mark. In follicular unit hair transplant procedures, the grafts will fit into sites smaller than 1.2mm so surface changes are generally not seen (even if the grafts are not placed flush with the skin).
It is difficult to fix the holes directly with the methods you listed as fillers do not fix well defined holes and laser-abrasion and dermabrasion may destroy the surrounding hair.
A properly performed second procedure that places follicular unit grafts in the area should correct the problem.
Q: When performing a repair on an old, pluggy hair transplant, why can’t all the grafts be removed at once?
A: We always try to do this, but it is not always possible.
If the large grafts (plugs) are spaced too close together, suturing one will put tension on an adjacent graft and make it more difficult to close. This may worsen, rather than improve, the underlying scar.
In addition, it is not always possible to remove all the follicles in a graft on one pass, as the root tends to fan outward deeper in the skin. If you use a large enough punch to remove all the follicles at once than you risk leaving a mark from the excision.
For more details, please see the following hair restoration publications:
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