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Pre-operative assessment and planning
At an initial consultation, the surgeon analyzes the patient's scalp, discusses their preferences and expectations, and advises them on the best approach (e.g. single vs. multiple sessions) and what results might reasonably be expected.
For several days prior to surgery the patient refrains from using any medicines which might result in intraoperative bleeding and resultant poor "take" of the grafts. Alcohol and smoking can contribute to poor graft survival. Post operative antibiotics are commonly prescribed to prevent wound or graft infections.
Transplant operations are performed on an outpatient basis, with mild sedation (optional) and injected local anesthesia, which typically last about six hours. The scalp is shampooed and then treated with an antibacterial agent prior to the donor scalp being harvested.
There are several different techniques available for the harvesting of hair follicles, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of which donor harvesting technique is employed, proper extraction of the hair follicle is paramount to ensure the viability of the transplanted hair and avoid transection, the cutting of the hair shaft from the hair follicle. Hair follicles grow at a slight angle to the skin's surface, which means that regardless of technique transplant tissue must be removed with a corresponding angle and not perpendicular to the surface.
There are two main ways in which donor grafts are extracted today: strip excision harvesting, and follicular unit extraction.
Follicular unit extraction (FUE)
With Follicular Unit Extraction or FUE harvesting, individual follicular units containing 1 to 4 hairs are removed under local anesthesia; this micro removal typically uses tiny punches of between 0.6mm and 1.0mm in diameter. The surgeon then uses very small micro blades or fine needles to puncture the sites for receiving the grafts, placing them in a predetermined density and pattern, and angling the wounds in a consistent fashion to promote a realistic hair pattern. The technicians generally do the final part of the procedure, inserting the individual grafts in place.
FUE takes place in a single long session or multiple small sessions. This is considered to be more time consuming, depending on the operator's skill, and there are restrictions on patient candidacy. Clients are selected for FUE based on a fox test,though there is some debate about the usefulness of this in screening clients for FUE.
FUE can give very natural results. The advantage over strip harvesting is that FUE harvesting negates the need for large areas of scalp tissue to be harvested, so there is no linear incision on the back of the head and it doesn't leave a linear scar. Because individual follicles are removed, only small, punctate scars remain which are virtually not visible and any post-surgical pain and discomfort is minimized. As no suture removal is required, recovery from FUE is within 7 days.
Advances in wound care allow for semi-permeable dressing, which allow seepage of blood and tissue fluid, to be applied and changed at least daily. The vulnerable recipient area must be shielded from the sun, and shampooing is started two days after the surgery. Some surgeons will have the patient shampoo the day after surgery. Shampooing is important to prevent scabs from forming around the hair shaft. Scabs adhere to the hair shaft and increase the risk of losing newly transplanted hair follicles during the first 7 to 10 days post-op.
During the first ten days, virtually all of the transplanted hairs, inevitably traumatized by their relocation, will fall out. This is referred to as "shock loss". After two to three months new hair will begin to grow from the moved follicles. The patient's hair will grow normally, and continue to thicken through the next six to nine months. Any subsequent hair loss is likely to be only from untreated areas. Some patients elect to use medications to retard such loss, while others plan a subsequent transplant procedure to deal with this eventuality.