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updated: 9/19/2011 10:34 AM

Too many questions surround hair analysis

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Obviously, I am a big fan of many aspects of nontraditional medicine (also a proponent of many aspects of traditional medicine). However, there are some therapies and tests in nontraditional medicine that lack any reasonable validity and reliability in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. A case in point is hair analysis.

Hair analysis is a procedure that is relatively common in some areas of nontraditional medicine. The hair is analyzed for content of specific minerals and vitamins. The theory behind it suggests that the content of minerals, heavy metals and vitamins in the hair reflects the mineral, heavy metals and vitamin content in the body. Low mineral and vitamin levels in the hair is believed to indicate low levels of minerals vitamins and body and ultimately is related to various medical conditions.

Unfortunately, except for detecting acute arsenic and cadmium poisoning as well as illegal drug use, there is no reliable data to indicate that this particular procedure is beneficial in diagnosing or treating any specific medical condition.

Since hair analysis does not require a medical license, it is most commonly used by alternative medicine practitioners who are unable to draw blood or write a prescription to have blood drawn. This includes nutritionists, dietitians, counselors and other ancillary health care providers. The general public is unaware of the limited legitimacy of hair analysis as a diagnostic tool. Therefore, any treatment program based on hair analysis should be questioned.

Compounding the problem with hair analysis is that there are no standardized testing methods for hair analysis. Medical research has shown that sending the hair to a number of different hair analysis facilities have resulted in significantly different results. In most cases, the results of hair analysis have never been correlated with blood or tissue levels. There are other factors that can significantly affect hair analysis including shampoo use and pollution as well as the location and length of hair taken for analysis. At this point in time, hair analysis is simply unreliable.

Recently, I heard of one case where a young child was being seen by a counselor for a very specific set of emotional issues. The counselor recommended that hair analysis be done. The hair was sent to an out-of-state analysis center. Interestingly, the analysis was done by a person with a Ph.D, but his Ph.D was not in nutrition, biochemistry or any aspect of analytic medicine. His degree was in psychology. The young child did receive an analysis of his hair and specific recommendations for vitamin and mineral dietary supplements, coincidentally, sold by the counselor.

I am not against the use of hair analysis. Some of the research in this area is exciting and reproducible. In the future, if analytic methods become standardized and the results are compared to blood and tissue controls, it may actually be an accurate and noninvasive test. However, today, for most medical conditions, hair analysis is not indicated.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.