My daughter is constantly telling me her hair hurts every evening when she takes out her ponytail and we run a comb through it. She describes the feeling as kind of good, but is sure it’s her hair that’s hurting and wants me to rub her scalp. I know the feeling, as I’ve felt it when I’ve had a really tight high ponytail in all day, but it doesn’t affect me like it affects her. In fact, I don’t feel any discomfort when I have my hair up in a normal ponytail or messy bun all day.
Our nightly conversations always remind me of my favorite episode of Sex and the City when Charlotte is talking about how she has been dating since she was 15 and is still waiting for the man of her dreams to sweep her off her feet. Her epic line, “Where is he? My hair hurts,” is all too relatable for a different reason, but brings up the question: Can your hair actually hurt?
We all know when we get a haircut we aren’t in pain, but what gives us the feeling that somewhere between our roots and scalp, we swear our hair can hurt?
Dr. Wade Cooper, a neurologist and the director of the headache and neuropathic pain program at the University of Michigan, says our “ponytail headache syndrome” comes from having a sensitive scalp and is a disorder that doesn’t affect everyone.
In an article by Haley Otman for Michigan Health, Cooper says that it’s “actually a real headache disorder…. It doesn’t affect everyone, but a tightly pulled-back hairdo can be really uncomfortable for those it does affect.”
Feeling pain after taking your hair down is a form allodynia, “a normal stimulus that is interpreted as pain,” Cooper says.
“The hair shaft itself and the hair outside of your head is not pain-sensitive, but the scalp they are embedded in has a lot of pain-sensitive nerves around it,” Cooper tells Michigan Health. “If a ponytail pulls back on the hair follicles, it can irritate a sensitive scalp.”
Cooper warns if you are prone to headaches, your ponytails are more likely to be irritating and cause pain. The best way to prevent irritation is to choose loose up-dos instead of tight hairstyles that can cause headaches. Cooper adds that stress and not getting enough sleep can add to a sensitive scalp.
And if you can take your hair down — even if it’s just for a few minutes — you can get relief.
SheKnows spoke with Stephanie Johnson, a licensed hairstylist who specializes in coloring and hair extensions. She explains when we have our hair up, the root is being stretched and “the nerves feel it.”
Johnson also adds that if we continue to pull our hair back too tightly or use clip-in extensions, we can cause damage. “Those hair follicles are crying out to you to just give up and they let the hair go and won’t produce more. This is how mechanical damage causes hair loss in some women,” she says — something we all want to avoid.
So while our hair can’t actually hurt, the discomfort we feel on our scalp when someone pulls our hair, when it’s up in a ponytail all day or the headaches we get are all real feelings — the sensitivity is just coming from the scalp, not the hair itself.
We need to be gentle with ourselves when something is hurting and pay attention, as it’s a signal something is wrong — and our hair is no exception.