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Hair health and happiness with hair extensions

“A woman’s hair is her crowning glory, a symbol of fertility and health” -- these are the passionate words of Lucinda Ellery, a hair extension therapist now working for the state funded National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Herself a hair loss sufferer, Ellery, 50, runs a hair loss treatment studio in Hammersmith, West London, that receives funding from a variety of primary care trusts throughout the UK to provide free hair extensions to patients suffering the emotional trauma associated with hair loss.

The number of younger women going bald is on the rise – although exact causes are unknown, the growing number of cases is thought to be related to increased levels of stress among modern women juggling family and professional responsibilities.

Thirty thousand women a year in Europe – an estimated 2,250 of them in Britain (double the number of a decade ago!) – suffer from alopecia, or premature baldness; the number of those suffering significant hair loss reaches the millions.

Elizabeth Steel, who heads Hairline International, a society for alopecia sufferers, cites a variety of likely causes, including hectic lifestyles, crash dieting, iron deficiencies and the overall depletion of the body’s resources that is associated with high levels of stress. Alopecia can also be triggered by certain birth control pills or by an overactive immune system.

Frequently a source of shame and emotional trauma, stress-related hair loss is not a new phenomenon but most women have suffered it in silence, the problem trivialized by ignorant doctors. Princess Caroline of Monaco famously shaved her head in 1995 after suffering significant hair loss, possibly from the stress of her husband’s tragic death in a speedboat accident. Now women in the UK can receive NHS-supported recognition and treatment as well.

Unlike wigs, Ellery’s hair extensions are woven into a gauze mesh that is fixed to the scalp and can be brushed and styled as if they were the patient’s real hair. The extensions need to be replaced every three months. Ellery, who lost two-thirds of her hair after her father died when she was 10, said that she treats approximately one NHS patient a week with extensions that can cost anywhere from £320 to £500.

“It means that women who might not have the money can at last be treated properly,” she said. The Lucinda Ellery studio also treats cancer patients who have lost their hair through chemotherapy and women who suffer from impulsive hair pulling, or trichotillomania. Earlier this year the pop singer Victoria Beckham, believed to be suffering from trichotillomania, had hair extensions put in.

Patients credit Ellery’s treatment with completely transforming their lives. Catherine Wallace, a 40-year old therapist from Scarborough, North Yorkshire who lost much of her hair over 20 years, says “I now live a normal life. It’s essential that this treatment exists on the NHS, because there are so many girls out there living half a life. Your hair is part of your sexuality and your glamour. Without it you can feel like your whole world has come apart.”

Not everyone agrees, however, with the NHS support of Ellery’s saving treatment. One doctor, who refused to be named, questions the legitimacy of links between hair loss and emotional distress. “I don’t object to women getting treated for a genuine illness, but I do worry that this will end up with women who simply want to have nicer hair claiming they’re experiencing emotional trauma. After all, we already have people getting boob jobs on the health service.”

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