At local clinic, restoring hair likened to 'planting flowers'

procedure that is less painful, reduces recovery time

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Hair restoration has gotten less painful, thanks to new medical technology that replaces scalpels and sutures with needles and tiny incisions.

Traditional hair restoration methods require cutting a ¾-inch strip of a person’s scalp from the back of his or her head, dissecting the donor strip into pieces with individual follicles, transplanting the follicles and suturing the back of the scalp.

But new technology allows plastic surgeons to remove and transplant hair follicles individually, eliminating the need for surgery and sutures.

A machine, called the NeoGraft Hair Transplant machine, allows doctors and technicians to use a small, handheld suction device to remove individual hair follicles. One local plastic surgery center, Salmon Creek Plastic Surgery, has the equipment and has performed about a dozen procedures on patients.

“This technology … doesn’t even compare to strip surgery,” said ­Robert Alvarado, lead hair technician for the center. “For us, for the patient, it’s night and day.”

Alvarado has performed hair transplants for 11 years, but for the last couple years has only used the new method.

The traditional method, commonly referred to as the “strip method,” is used by most centers. The new technology was introduced in the United States a couple years ago and is starting to pop up in medical offices across the country, said Dr. Richard Green of Salmon Creek Plastic Surgery.

Gentle, quick procedure

Last week, Alvarado used the NeoGraft technology to restore the hairline of a 66-year-old woman.

Alvarado used the machine to extract 1,027 hair follicles from the woman’s head in 50 minutes. The device makes a small incision at the donor site on the back of the scalp. A gentle suction removes the hair follicle, and Alvarado sorted the harvested follicles based on the number of hair shafts they contained (each follicle can have one to four hair shafts).

After the harvest was complete, Alvarado made tiny needle pricks in the women’s temple area and along her forehead. He used forceps to place, by hand, follicles in each needle incision.

“It’s like planting flowers,” he said.

The entire procedure took about five hours to complete.

Eliminating the need for the strip surgery means patients can more quickly return to their day-to-day activities and are likely to experience less discomfort while healing, Green said.

The strip method requires stitches for about two weeks after surgery and leaves a scar about 1/3-inch wide. Some patients complain of hair loss, numbness or tightness at the scar site, Green said.

The newer method allows patients to return to normal activity within about five days. The incisions — at both the donor site and transplant site — produce small scabs. Men and women with longer hair can usually cover the donor site, whereas those with shorter hair will look like they have a scrape on the back of their head, Green said.

The procedure has been particularly appealing to women. About 60 percent of the center’s patients who received the hair transplant are women, Green said.

“You think of hair loss as a male area of concern,” he said. “When, in fact, a majority of our patients thus far have been women.”

While male baldness is typically due to genetics, women’s hair loss can be attributed to genetics or medical conditions. Women’s hair loss also differs because women don’t tend to lose their hair in any particular pattern, unlike men.

People, especially women, with hair loss have limited options. Only two medications have been proven to slow hair loss or regrow hair, and only one is OK for women to use, said Dr. Virginia Huang, at Salmon Creek Plastic Surgery.

The new treatment method makes getting a transplant more appealing, Green said.

“For a lot of people, the elimination of a scar is a big deal,” he said.

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.