If you've ever tousled your tresses only to wonder why your hair hurts when you move it, that strange sensation is not just in your head. While pain in your mane sounds peculiar, trust us, it's an actual thing. And it's not uncommon.
Achy hair stems from problems with your scalp. In other words, your strands themselves aren't sore, but rather the pain is produced by the skin around your hair, which is rich in blood vessels, nerve endings and oil glands.
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"We experience pain when our brain interprets signals released by our nerves," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "There are a variety of reasons why your scalp may hurt, [like] neurologic issues [or] inflammation in the skin."
Here, Dr. Zeichner runs through the most common causes of scalp soreness to help you get to the root of the problem. Plus, he shares ways to prevent pain and soothe your sensitive scalp.
When your dandruff flakes flare up, you might experience more scalp pain.
Here's why: Dandruff is a condition characterized by higher levels of yeast on the scalp. This excessive yeast growth drives inflammation, which translates to redness, scaliness, itchiness and, in more severe cases, pain, Dr. Zeichner says.
Yeast is a fungus, but dermatologists do not consider dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis) to be a fungal infection. The yeast that plays a role in dandruff formation is naturally occurring. Some people are more sensitive to it or have a larger amount of growth. There is a fungal infection of the scalp, tinea capitis, that can cause scalp itching and sensitivity or pain.
Fix it: Use a dandruff shampoo containing zinc pyrithione, which helps lower levels of yeast on the scalp and can help reduce inflammation, Dr. Zeichner says. He recommends Dove DermaCare Scalp Anti Dandruff Shampoo (Amazon, $4.99).
But keep in mind that shampoo treatments need enough contact time with the scalp to have an effect. "Rub it into the scalp with your fingertips and let it sit while you sing the alphabet before rinsing out," Dr. Zeichner says.
You should also shampoo based on your hair type, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have an oily scalp, daily shampooing may help thwart dandruff. Conversely, for people with dry hair and a sensitive scalp, shampooing less frequently may be a better option.
If an over-the-counter shampoo is not helpful, a dermatologist may be able to prescribe a shampoo or other treatment for persistent dandruff.
Other Ways to Get Rid of Dandruff
Here are some other tips to prevent or treat dandruff, per the Mayo Clinic:
2. Greasy Buildup
"We naturally have a high concentration of oil glands in our scalp, and if we don't wash our hair regularly, that oil can build up," Dr. Zeichner says.
Not only will this excess oil give you a greasy head of hair, but it can also lead to itchiness. This may set off subsequent scratching, discomfort and can cause your scalp to hurt when you move your hair, he says.
Fix it: Prevent and relieve greasy buildup (and scalp pain) with more frequent hair washing, Dr. Zeichner says.
But again, pay attention to your hair type. Over-cleansing can dry out sensitive scalps and cause dandruff flakes to flourish.
Additionally, limit your use of styling products (especially dry shampoo), which can accumulate on your hair and scalp and make them greasier, per the Mayo Clinic.
Another potential reason why your hair hurts when you move it? Folliculitis.
"Folliculitis is a condition where bacteria invade the hair follicles, leading to pus pimples," Dr. Zeichner says. This skin-related ailment can also be caused by viruses, fungi and even irritated ingrown hairs, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In some cases, folliculitis can be extensive, causing inflammation and itchy, burning, painfully tender skin, Dr. Zeichner says.
Fix it: "If you're developing folliculitis, visit your dermatologist for a prescription antibiotic treatment," Dr. Zeichner says.
Home remedies, like warm compresses and anti-itch creams, may also help soothe symptoms.
While eczema is generally found on your hands, neck, elbows, ankles, knees, feet and around your eyes, this relentless rash can also sprout up on your scalp and produce pain.
"Eczema is a condition where the skin barrier is not working as well as it should be, causing cracks in the outer skin layer," Dr. Zeichner says. This leads to a loss of hydration and an influx of inflammation, which can result in itching, discomfort or pain, he explains.
Fix it: "We treat eczema in waves," Dr. Zeichner says. "First we want to moisturize the skin and repair the skin barrier." To this end, hydrating scalp oils can be useful, he says.
Taking shorter baths and showers (meaning 10 to 15 minutes tops) with warm — not hot — water can reduce the chances of further drying out your skin and scalp, per the Mayo Clinic. Using gentle shampoos that don't strip your scalp of natural oils may also help preserve moisture.
"The other half of the story is reducing inflammation," he says. You can start with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory scalp treatments like Scalpicin (Amazon, $11.51). But if these don't help, visit your dermatologist for a prescription.
Avoid Eczema Triggers
Per the Mayo Clinic, you may also prevent flareups by identifying and avoiding triggers, which can include:
- Soaps or detergents
- Dust or pollen
- Certain foods like eggs, milk, soy and wheat
5. Wearing Tight Hairstyles
Your hair might hurt as the byproduct of your high ponytail.
"Pulling the hair back tightly can put pressure on the hair follicles themselves, leading to inflammation," Dr. Zeichner says.
Not only can this cause pain, but it also can lead to permanent damage of the follicles and a specific form of hair loss known as traction alopecia, where people typically develop thinning along the frontal hairline, he says.
Fix it: If possible, slacken your pony or braids. "You can't undo any damage that has already been done, but I always recommend loose hairstyles to maintain the health of your hair," Dr. Zeichner says.
Your achy scalp may be attributed to allodynia, a type of nerve pain that makes people extremely sensitive to touch, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
With allodynia, things that are painless for most — like brushing your hair, wearing a loose ponytail or washing your hair — can become excruciatingly uncomfortable.
This unpleasant neuropathic pain is often a side effect of another underlying health condition such as diabetes, shingles, fibromyalgia and migraine headaches, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: See your doctor, who can diagnose and treat the condition that's causing allodynia and provide a proper pain management plan.
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