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Post-surgery hair loss is most commonly caused by telogen effluvium (TE), a condition that’s triggered by a disruption of your normal hair follicle cycling.

Normally, you lose between 50 to 100 hairs per day. However, sometimes certain health events, such as surgeries or underlying medical conditions, can cause hair follicles to not produce hairs as they should.

The good news is, while hair loss after surgery is possible, it’s usually temporary. If you’re concerned about hair loss after your operation, talk with your doctor about the possible risk factors and treatment options.

In a typical hair cycle, your follicles go through a growth process that lasts for a few years at a time. Hair follicles don’t continuously produce new hairs — they cycle through resting phases known as telogens.

According to the American Hair Loss Association, it’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of your hair follicles are in a telogen state at any given time.

If the proportion of telogen hairs is greater than 20 percent, it’s an indication of telogen effluvium, one of the most common forms of hair loss.

Surgery can sometimes put your hair follicles in a longer resting state than normal. Rather than large bald spots associated with alopecia areata, you’re more likely to see progressively thinner hair as a result of TE.

Surgery may cause TE-related hair loss in the following ways:

Stress

Surgery is considered an invasive process, which can put your body — and your mind — under a lot of stress.

According to the American Skin Association, hair loss after a major stressful event of this nature is most likely to occur within 3 to 6 months.

Your body needs certain nutrients for hair growth, such as:

  • biotin
  • iron
  • zinc
  • protein

A stressful event, like surgery, may cause your body to divert these nutrients away from your vital organs. This can lead to hair thinning and TE.

Positional alopecia

According to a 2012 research review, while not common, this type of hair loss occurs from your head being in one position for several hours at a time. This can cut blood flow to your hair follicles.

Positional alopecia isn’t as common in short procedures because your head isn’t in one spot for too long.

The same research review above showed that this type of hair loss has been reported most commonly in cardiac surgeries.

Positional alopecia is also possible after extensive reconstructive surgeries, due to the length of time spent laying in one position.

Anesthesia

According to Larry S. Nichter, MD, FACS, a board certified plastic surgeon with Pacific Center for Plastic Surgery in Newport Beach, California, while still debatable, some doctors suspect there may be a link between anesthesia and hair loss, particularly with surgeries lasting several hours.

It’s thought that lengthy anesthetic periods could possibly lead to TE-related hair loss by causing reduced cell division. Slower cellular division may in turn inhibit hair follicle production. But this has not been proven in clinical studies.

The type of anesthesia used may also contribute to hair loss. A 2012 research review found that hypotensive anesthesia, which is primarily used in maxillofacial surgeries, may increase the risk of positional alopecia.

A 2015 research review showed that while not tolerated by all patients, hypotensive anesthesia is still used to help decrease blood loss during certain operations, such as dental surgery.

Medication side effects

Certain medications taken post-surgery may lead to hair loss, especially if you’re allergic to them. The American Skin Association advises that you may also talk with your doctor if you take any of the following drugs linked to TE:

Type of surgery

It’s also important to consider the site of your surgery. While all surgeries have the potential to cause TE and hair loss, you may be at an increased risk of hair follicles shutting down if your incisions are made on your scalp.

According to a 2012 research review, head and neck surgeries, as well as the use of hypotensive anesthesia, have also been linked to increased risk of positional alopecia that may lead to hair loss.

While hair loss after surgery isn’t entirely preventable, you may be able to help minimize the effects of TE. This includes:

  • eating a nutritious diet full of plant-based foods
  • regular exercise
  • better sleep
  • stress management

Make sure you don’t have any nutritional deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies may play a role in hair loss — with or without surgery.

According to a 2018 research review, the following micronutrients have been identified by researchers as possibly supporting healthy hair follicles and, subsequently, typical hair growth cycles:

  • iron
  • selenium
  • zinc
  • antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, and E
  • B vitamins
  • vitamin D

Ensure you’re getting enough protein and iron

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, adequate protein and iron intake has also been linked to healthy hair growth.

You may be able to help minimize hair loss by eating foods rich in these nutrients, but it’s unclear whether you can prevent surgery-related hair loss with any particular diet.

A blood test can determine whether you’re deficient in any of the above nutrients, and your doctor may recommend certain foods or supplements based on the results.

However, you shouldn’t take supplements on your own without any established nutritional deficiency. According to a 2017 research review, doing so may increase your risk for worsening hair loss from toxicity.

Talk with your doctor about hair loss concerns before surgery

It’s also important to discuss the possibility of surgery-related hair loss with your doctor before your operation.

If you expect a long surgery or an intensive care treatment, you may ask about the medical team’s plan for head turning schedules to help prevent positional alopecia.

Your doctor can help assess other risk factors for hair loss, and potentially offer an action plan to help minimize it. This may involve the preventive strategies listed above, as well as potential post-surgery treatments.

While it may be concerning to see thinning hair or increased hair loss after your surgery, there are steps you can discuss with your doctor to help treat it.

A dermatologist can determine whether a home or professional treatment is best, but either option can take several months to take full effect.

At-home treatments

At-home treatments may include:

Medical treatments

Depending on the severity of hair loss, your dermatologist may recommend one of the following professional treatments:

The chances of experiencing hair loss after surgery isn’t well-established, but it’s possible that this major stressor can interfere with healthy hair follicle cycles and lead to temporary hair loss.

Other risk factors for hair loss include:

  • the type of surgery you have
  • your overall health
  • your lifestyle

In most cases, hair loss after surgery will reverse itself over several months’ time.

If you do lose hair post-surgery, talk with a dermatologist about potential treatments and possible ways you can regulate your hair growth cycle once again.