THE unstable economy of the last couple of years may have made people pull back on their spending - but it hasn't stopped balding men from ponying up for hair transplants. In fact, the demand for this procedure is growing, says last year's practice census of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery.
Between 2010 and 2012, the number of surgical hair-restoration procedures grew 10 per cent. The region where the highest number of such procedures were done? Asia, with 102,702 procedures in 2012.
Most of the patients - 86.3 per cent - were men, and more than half were aged 30 to 49. Chow Yuen Ho of TCS Aesthetics Central Clinic Robotic Hair Restoration service says that the rising numbers come on the back of improvements in technology that have minimised scarring, shortened recovery and downtime.
ARTAS robotic hair restoration makes use of digital imaging and precision robotics to scan and grade each hair so that the healthiest - and best-placed - hairs are harvested for transplant to balding areas.
Dr Chow, who has more than 10 years of clinical experience and a special interest in aesthetic dermatological procedures and lasers, says: "Optimal spacing is maintained between each hair, preserving the natural look of the donor area. Unlike older transplant methods, no stitches are required, and therefore, there's no risk of a visible linear scar."
The traditional method of hair restoration, called Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT), is more invasive. It entails the surgical removal of a piece of scalp from the back and sides of the head, and the use of stitches or staples to close the wound. The strip of scalp is then handed to a group of technicians, who then manually separate the individual follicular units. These dissected follicular units are then transplanted onto the balding areas of the scalp by the surgical team.
A recovery period of several weeks would typically follow, and patients may suffer numbness, scalp tightness or lingering pain after that.
And then there is also the obvious linear scar and hairstyle limitations to contend with, adds Dr Chow.
Hair transplants are the only permanent solution to hair loss, he adds. Pills and creams may slow hair loss with continual use, but once these are stopped, their benefits stop as well.
Dr Chow says that the average person sheds between 50 and 100 hairs a day - a drop in the ocean, considering there are roughly 100,000 hairs on one's head.
It may be a first sign of hair loss, however, if one notices a significant amount of hair left behind on comb, pillow or shower stall grating.
In more than 95 per cent of cases, hair thinning in men is caused by androgenic alopecia, or male pattern baldness. This is a common hereditary condition resulting in hair follicles at the top and front of the head becoming sensitive to the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT). The hair in those regions becomes thinner over time. Eventually, the follicle becomes dormant.
Healthy hair follicles resistant to DHT are usually on the sides and back of the head, but these may even get weaker and finer in time, says Dr Chow.
He likens the cutting-edge ARTAS approach to a normal visit to the dentist - just more pleasant.
A local anaesthetic is administered so the patient stays awake through the procedure; he may even want to listen to music or watch a movie or take scheduled breaks during the procedure.
Before it, the physician would have developed a treatment plan based on goals, hair type and personal characteristics.
"During your procedure, the physician will transplant each hair individually. For most procedures, a new hairline is created and thinning interior areas are filled in," he says.
The transplanted hair, which is unaffected by the DHT hormone, takes root in a few weeks and grows. Patients see significant growth after about six months.
The cost of treatment depends on the amount of new hair desired, and will generally start from a ballpark figure of $5,500.