Here's What's Really Happening When Your 'Hair Hurts'

The pain is just part of it.
Monica Schipper via Getty Images

Chances are you’re familiar with the specific discomfort that comes with taking your hair out of an updo after a long day. But have you ever considered why it’s so sore? Turns out, it’s not your actual hair that hurts at all.

Dr. Angela Lamb, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice, director of dermatology at the Institute of Family Health and an assistant dermatology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told The Huffington Post that it’s the nerve endings attached to each specific hair that are actually affected.

“Hair follicles are some of the first receptors of feeling,” she said. “Your hair is a whole component of your nervous system, so when you pull it up that puts pressure on the nerve endings that are at the root of the follicle. When you do that over time, they get sore.”

According to Jessica Wu, M.D., a Los Angeles dermatologist, it’s also a matter of your hair growing accustomed to being in one position. “The nerve endings get used to the hair being in that direction,” she said. “Then when you take your hair down, the nerve endings get stimulated again, so your scalp feels more sensitive.”

But before you throw your hair back up into a ponytail and write off this discomfort as harmless, think again. Pulling your hair up repeatedly and too often can, as Lamb explained, can “put you at risk for something we call traction alopecia: Hair loss literally just from putting up, stress and tension on the hair.” Wu added that repeated pulling can also make the hair “thinner.”

Furthermore, constantly putting your hair up in the same way, whether for exercise or otherwise, can cause damage to your actual hair, too. “Hair is dead, it’s just made of Keratin, but certainly if you put too much tension and pressure on it that can cause breakage,” Lamb said. Try instead to do a variation of different updos, whether it be braids one day, a bun the next or a ponytail after that.

When it comes to braids, it's important to keep in mind that they are rooted in the black experience and particularly rocked by women of color in various ways. However, these beautiful hair styles can sometimes pull tightly on the scalp. Lamb warns that “braids are one of the main culprits of traction alopecia,” and that this rule applies for all hair types. Her advice for women who have their hair braided? “Make sure they are loose and not pulling on the hair too much or too tight.”

If you have an unwavering affection for updos and are left scarred by the thought of hair loss, fear not. There are steps you can take to not only prevent soreness of the scalp but also potential hair loss. “Don’t do it every day,” Lamb said. “If you have it up during the day, be sure to take it out for the evening. And just don’t do a pulled back style daily ― that’s when you can run into problems.”

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