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Beauty Parlour Syndrome

Michelle Victor and Jack Dahlsen, of Leigh Day's product liability and consumer law team, discuss the rare condition Beauty Parlour Syndrome.

Posted on 10 March 2017

Although most people are used to putting off a trip to the hairdressers for fear of a bad haircut, a dodgy blow dry, or to postpone an hour of small talk, few of us are likely to avoid a hair appointment to dodge having our hair washed. However, this seemingly harmless procedure can have dramatic and life changing effects due to the risk of developing what is commonly termed ‘Beauty Parlour Syndrome’. 
Do not be fooled by the seemingly innocuous name of the condition. Beauty Parlour Syndrome, known medically as vertebrobasilar insufficiency, is the term used to describe a stroke caused as a result of hair washing at a hairdressing salon. An American neurologist, Dr Weintraub, first used the term in 1993 in a published survey that recorded five incidents in which women were hospitalised after having their hair washed at salons; four of which suffered strokes leading to permanent neurological damage. 

 We have probably all felt uncomfortable awkwardly craning our necks backwards over a cold sink rim to have our hair washed at the hairdressers. But very few people are aware that this process can limit the supply of blood to the brain and may lead to an eventual stroke. Experts believe that the very process of pushing the neck backwards and holding it there for a prolonged period can stretch the arteries in the neck responsible for supplying blood, oxygen and nutrients to vital brain structures. On rare occasions this overextension can cut or tear the arteries which may lead to blood clots and strokes.
A stroke is a brain attack which occurs when the blood supply to your brain is cut off.  Depending on where it occurs in your brain, the damage caused can have different effects and a stroke may not only affect the way your body functions physically but also how you think, feel and communicate.

The Stroke Association has advised that the effects of a stroke can be very varied. Whilst some people have relatively minor effects which are short in duration, other individuals may be left with long-term debilitating problems which can make them dependant on others. Unfortunately, suffering a stroke can be fatal and the Stroke Association estimates that approximately 1 in 8 people die within 30 days of suffering from a stroke. 
Although the total number of beauty parlour syndrome cases is by its very nature difficult to quantify, experts maintain that instances of the phenomenon are still relatively rare. Nevertheless, a number of cases have been reported over the recent years.

Only in December 2016 a man was awarded £90,000 in an out of court settlement following a stroke he developed after his hair had been washed at the Headmasters hairdressing salon in Brighton. Earlier in 2016, a Californian woman brought legal action in the United States after she suffered a stroke resulting from having her hair shampooed at a salon for 10 minutes in 2013. In 2000 a British woman also suffered a stroke after having her hair washed at a salon which left her with slurred speech and she subsequently died from a second stroke in 2004. 
Mark Phillips of the Hair and Beauty Industry Authority has said that hairdressers have strict guidelines to ensure that their clients are as comfortable as possible and that their necks are not extended for long periods. He also commented that trainee hairdressers should be aware of the risks and carefully supervised. However, hairdressing in the UK is unregulated and the UK remains one of the few countries worldwide that lacks compulsory registration. Coupled with this, despite the life-changing risks faced, hairdressers do not need formal qualifications to wash or cut their clients’ hair. 

Awareness is key. Always let your hairdresser know of any neck issues you may have before your hair is washed. Look for a shampoo chair with good neck support and ensure the wash basin and your chair are adjusted for your height. If neither the chair or the basin are adjustable then rolled up towels can be used to prop yourself up to reduce the angle between the head and back and to ensure that your neck is in line with your spine and not bent backwards. Alternatively, you could ask to have your washed whilst facing down into the bowl instead of up at the ceiling. Most importantly, remember at all times to let your hairdresser know if you have any concerns or feel uncomfortable with the position of your neck. 
A cut or tear to one of your arteries caused by having your head tipped backwards during hair washing is unlikely to cause immediate pain. As it can also take several days or weeks for a blood clot to build up to a large enough size to block an artery, this means that you may often be unaware of a stroke developing. 

Strokes can occur suddenly and shockingly. The Stroke Association has advised that the key characteristics of a stroke can be recognised by the FAST test: 
  • Facial drooping: has the person’s face fallen to one side?
  • Arm weakness: is the person able to raise their arm?
  • Speech: is the person’s speech slurred?
  • Time: if any of these signs are spotted, always call 999
Other symptoms typically include sudden weakness on one side of the body, trouble finding words, sudden blurred vision or loss of sight, sudden confusion, dizziness or unsteadiness or a sudden and severe headache. The Stoke Association advises that medical treatment is received quickly will provide the best chances of making a good recovery. 

It is worth remembering that instances of beauty parlour syndrome are relatively rare and should not scare us off our usual hair appointments. Instead we recommend that if you are planning on having a new do for a ‘new you’ you should bear the potential risks in mind and always speak to your hairdresser or stylist if you have any concerns.

If you have suffered a stroke or similar injury after having had your hair washed at a hairdressing salon and would like to speak to a lawyer for a free consultation, please call 0207 650 1161.