Traction alopecia sounds a lot scarier than it actually is (don't worry, it's not deadly or anything), but it's still something that no one wants—especially if you prefer styling your hair in boxer braids every day. That's because it's basically a fancy way of saying, "hair loss due to aggressive styling."
While most hair loss is hormone related (for example, most women experience it during menopause), traction alopecia is strictly about physical trauma to the hair follicle, says Kenneth Anderson, M.D., board certified hair restoration expert and surgeon in Atlanta, GA.
"Traction alopecia is really a matter of pulling the hairs out," he says. "If you pull hair out, it's almost certainly going to grow back. But every time you pull it out, it delivers a little injury to the follicle, and eventually it's going to stop."
The number one culprit? Consistent styling in super tight hairstyles like dreadlocks, cornrows, tight weaves, braids, heavy extensions, etc. The result: patches of baldness where your once-thick hair used to be. And it's actually super common, though more so among African American women. Almost half of African American women have experienced some type of hair loss (from traction alopecia or otherwise), according to a survey by the American Academy of Dermatology. (BTW there are even more sneaky reasons for hair loss you probably didn't know about.)
As for Kim K? Dr. Anderson says the patchy hair that paparazzi photos show is consistent with the appearance of traction alopecia, but there's no definite way to tell. But she's been known to style her hair in braids and uber-tight pony tails, so it's certainly not out of the question.
The scary part of traction alopecia is that it's irreversible. If your hair hasn't come back in about six months, it's most likely permanent and the only true solution is a hair transplant, says, Dr. Anderson.
But let's pause before you start undoing your fishtail or sleek topknot—one week in boxer braids or a month with corn rows won't suddenly result in the loss of all your hair. It takes months on months or many years of tension on your roots to leave you with permanent loss. (First step: find out how much hair loss is normal.)
So relax, and go get your hair done. Just keep tabs on how hard you're yanking on those tresses.