Follicular Unit Extraction refers to the surgical method of hair transplantation that excises natural groupings of hair (follicular units). Hair restoration broadly refers to medical and surgical methods used in restoring baldness. This includes the use of medications such as minoxidil and finasteride as well as a variety of surgical methods.
There has been an ongoing evolution in the surgical techniques used in hair restoration. The range of techniques includes:
The first two methods are largely defunct due to unfavorable cosmetic outcomes and complication. Therefore, hair transplantation is the procedure of choice for surgical hair restoration, and has itself evolved. The first form of hair transplantation practiced was punch grafting (Figure 3a), developed by Dr. Norman Orentreich in the 1950s. This method resulted in unnatural cosmetic outcomes with the classic “doll’s hair” result and unacceptable scarring in the donor area.
Hair transplantation evolved next to the strip method (Figure 3b), commonly called follicular unit strip surgery (FUSS). This method results in linear scarring on the back and sides of the head.
The concept of FUE hair transplantion was created in the 1980s. Dr. Masumi Inaba, a Japanese dermatologist, described a yet newer approach, which entailed the removal of individual hair follicles one by one from the donor areas—follicular unit extraction (Figure 3c). This resulted in tiny wounds instead of the linear scarring, and an overall more even, full, and natural looking head of hair. Follicular Unit Extraction is today’s top choice among surgical solutions to hair loss.
TERMINOLOGIES AND PRACTITIONERS IN FOLLICULAR UNIT EXTRACTION
When the consumer sets about researching FUE, they would likely come across terms like FOX, Woods technique, SAFE, CIT, FUSE, uGraft, etc. This is a result of the procedure being developed independently by different pioneering practitioners. Each of these pioneering physicians has molded the process to his or her own tactics, hence the different name brands. Dr. Inaba never gave FUE a specific name. Dr. Rassman and Bernstein, being the first to publish on the subject, termed it follicular unit extraction. Unlike the others, this term is not patentable.
Dr. Sanusi Umar is a hair transplant surgeon certified by the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Internal Medicine. He pioneered the advanced FUE method using uGraft, also known as “The Umar Procedure.”
His advanced form of Follicular Unit Extraction enables the use of body hair as donor follicles, for patients with a very limited pool of head donor hair. Because of Dr. Umar’s uGraft procedure, those with severe baldness are no longer considered poor candidates for hair replacement procedures.
Others who have helped to develop FUE include Dr. Ray Woods and Dr. Angela Woods of “The Woods Technique;” Dr. John Cole created his “Cole Isolation Technique;” FUSE, or follicular unit separation extraction was invented by Dr. Arvind Poswal; the SAFE method comes from Dr. James Harris; and lastly, Dr. William Rassman and Robert Bernstein innovated the FOX procedure.
The purpose of the SAFE method was to decrease transection rates for novice FUE surgeons. However, this method is ironically known to cause burying of follicular grafts during extraction. After the initial incision, Dr. Harris applies a punch to the same area, which sometimes causes graft burial if the punch is not properly aligned. This method also adds an additional step to an already lengthy procedure.
A few things more to note about these FUE practitioners:
During the procedure, the surgeon will first incise the skin around the follicular unit. This incision may be deep or shallow depending on the follicle’s extent of attachment to the surrounding tissue. The surgeon will then remove the follicle from the donor area. This is the basis for all FUE hair restoration procedures including repair procedures using follicles from the beard region.
Generally, the initial cut in FUE surgery is done with a punch-like device using a rotary motion, which can be done manually or with the aid of a powered rotary device. The concept of using punches or rotary devices for hair restoration was first introduced in the mid-20th century with the punch grafting method.
During that time, the grafting was done in 4mm size punches, which resulted in large round scars in the donor areas (Figure 4). In the restored area, the result was pluggy hair (Figure 5) and a higher complication of pitting and “cobble stoning.” These outcomes were unnatural looking and cosmetically unacceptable. FUE uses smaller punch sizes of 0.7-1.2mm, which typically results in rapid wound healing and cosmetically insignificant scarring (Figure 6a and 6b).
As previously mentioned, Follicular Unit Extraction involves follicular units (natural groupings of one to four hairs) one by one. Thus, FUE inherently produces smaller grafts—hence the result in the restored balding area is akin to nature and cosmetically more appealing (Figure 7a and 7b). The classic complications of pitting and “cobble stoning” are eliminated.
Follicular Unit Extraction generally requires the practitioner to possess a higher skill set in order to perform the procedure successfully. The procedure also takes more time to accomplish and demands direct involvement of the practitioner. Because each individual hair extraction is considered a surgical procedure in itself, the surgeon is required by law to perform the FUE procedure himself in most countries. So unlike strip surgery, the retrieval of each graft cannot be abdicated to a person who is unlicensed to perform surgery.
This all translates to the procedure being more costly compared to the traditional strip method. This is because strip surgery requires less skill sets and the majority of the labor involved is performed often by technicians. The described scenario also translates to a lower margin of error in FUE hair restoration. If the procedure is performed by an inexperienced practitioner, the yield and overall result can be subpar on the average. That said, it should be noted that performance of both FUE and the traditional strip method of hair transplantation can result in a poor outcome if performed inadequately. This video buttresses the point well:
Other contraindications that apply to all hair transplants would also apply to FUE procedures. Some of these include:
FUE SURGICAL TOOLS:
This is the first and most popular tool used for FUE surgeries. It essentially consists of a punch that is mounted on a holder (Figure 8). The practitioner positions the cutting edge of the punch around the follicles and with a quick motion rotates in an oscillatory manner to execute the first cut around the follicle. This cut will completely or partially separate the follicle from its tissue attachments. If separation is partial, the follicle is retrieved either by a gentle pull or by further dissection.
The punch in this instance is mounted on an electromechanical rotary tool (Figure 9). This reduces the motion action required by the FUEpractitioner. It also, to some degree, reduces the transection caused by an unsteady hand. The electromechanical device may execute a continuously rotary motion or a back and forth oscillation motion. Some even incorporate a depth control mechanism.
Automated graft removing devices:
Some devices incorporate a suction component to remove the grafts as it is being cut. While this FUE technologyimproves on speed of extraction, it may present a problem of exposing the grafts to suction forces. When this is at issue, most of these devices enable the exclusion of suction. In which case the device can be used as a hand held rotary tool (See above).
The one robotic machine approved by the FDA for FUE hair transplant procedures is the Artas machine (Figure 11). This machine works by the principle of the three-step FUE technique which involves an initial cut around the follicle with a sharp instrument, followed by a second cut using a blunt punch end. The third step is completed by manual retrieval of the graft using forceps. The machine is applicable only to individuals with straight, brown, or black hair. The damage rates cited for this tool were initially high but it has been said to improve. Since it uses the three-step approach, there could be a higher incidence of buried grafts. The process can be even slower given the time it takes to reset the patient’s positioning, an experienced FUE hair restoration surgeon using hand-held devices can accomplish the task at a faster rate. The tool offers a advantage in those practicing FUE anew.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SURGEON
To read more about actual patient hair restoration using the fue method click here to read more.