Growing hair and self-esteem at the VA

Jonathan Kaupanger
September 17, 2018 - 2:58 pm

Photo by Department of Veterans Affairs

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Hair loss, while annoying, is expected by most men later in life.  As men age, they get what some call, distinguished.  For women though losing your hair is anything but distinguished.

“It can be devastating,” says Dr. Mary Maiberger, Chief of Dermatology at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center.  “We see a lot of veterans at the DCVAMC with hair loss.  We have a very large female population and I would say a significant number come to see us for alopecia.”

Alopecia is the medical term for hair loss.  For female veterans, there’s some thought that pressure from having to constantly pull back their hair into braids or a ponytail could be the cause of losing their hair.  But according to Maiberger, the majority of female veterans they see at the D.C. center have a unique form of hair loss called Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia (CCCA).  The cause of CCCA is unknown, and it’s more common with African American females. 

While it may be the number one cause of hair loss, it’s treatable and Veterans Affairs can help you get your hair back. 

“It was a surprise when I found out,” says Air Force veteran Nicole Thomas.  Like many veterans, Thomas had no idea VA offered hair treatments.  “I found out through people talking so I went and they did diagnose me with alopecia and that is all that was needed to get me to the services.”

“It’s not just a cosmetic issue, it goes well beyond that,” says Maiberger.  “It affects a sense of self and it can also be clues to other diseases internally, so it’s important not to ignore it.  A patient may first come to us presenting with hair loss and we find that they have low iron levels or they have a thyroid disorder.  It can be a sign of greater disease depending on the pattern appearance and history.”

After her diagnosis, the first stop for Thomas was to get a wig.  “I went to them to give my hair a rest,” says Thomas.  Her hair loss was not service related.  She feels that years of braiding and chemicals caused an orange size bald spot at the top of her head.  She’s been receiving treatment for a couple years now, including Rogaine for Women, vitamins and laser treatments.   The laser treatment involves a cap with laser lights that penetrates the scalp and stimulates the circulation.

Other treatment options at VA include biopsies of the scalp, injections if there are inflammation or discomfort and even mental health support.  “If a patient is having a lot of psychosocial distress related to their hair loss and their military experience, I think VA has support more globally for that,” says Maiberger.

“This has absolutely done a lot for my self-esteem,” says Thomas.  “Before I would never go out of my house without a wig on.  Now my hair is beautiful.  I LOVE my hair!”

Ask for VA primary care provider for more information on hair restoration.

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