When most people think of hair loss, they think of a man or woman with typical “pattern” hair loss. Doctors call this “alopecia.” In particular, male and female pattern hair loss is known as “androgenetic alopecia.”* There are other types of alopecia, though.
Generally speaking, if hair loss occurs in the typical male or female pattern, androgenetic alopecia is the diagnosis. Patchy hair loss (a spot here or a spot there but not a whole area), is likely to be “alopecia areata.” Also, there is a whole set of alopecias called “scarring” or “cicatricial alopecias” that can manifest in a variety of ways.
Not all alopecias are genetic. Some can be caused by environmental factors, like diet, medications, toxins, or stress. Others are due to an underlying medical condition. Collectively, doctors call these factors the patient’s “history.” Pattern and history are important for all alopecia patients to identify for themselves, and to be able to communicate to their doctors. Most patients can get an idea of what kind of hair loss might be affecting them by a combination of the pattern of the alopecia and the history of how it developed.
A specific diagnosis is important in all medical conditions, but even more important with hair loss. The reason is that the treatments are different depending on what type of hair loss a patient has. For instance, surgery works beautifully in almost every case of traction alopecia, but would fail utterly if used in active alopecia areata. Likewise, if a patient pulls out their own hair, a condition known as “trichotillomania,” the hair will re-grow by itself if left alone so psychotherapy (and sometimes medication) is used to help the patient stop.
No matter what the eventual cause of a patient’s alopecia is found to be, prompt diagnosis and initiation of treatment is crucial. Many forms of hair loss can be stopped, slowed, or even restored with prompt and consistent treatment, but the patient needs to know what their diagnosis is before they can get the right care for their hair. Unfortunately, since hair loss is so emotional, many patients remain in denial for years before seeking help. This is tragic since with a treatable alopecia they could have been living with and enjoying hair for all those years.
Not all hair loss is treatable. However, with the newer treatments that have become available over the past decade, many forms of hair loss can be improved. If you are suffering from hair loss, no matter what type of alopecia you suspect it is, it is worth seeing your doctor to find out what your diagnosis is and what can be done, because having hair is worth the trouble.
*Just to confuse matters, this can also be referred to as “androgenic alopecia.”