The "Rapunzel Syndrome" Is a Little-Known Medical Horror

Another day, another medical horror with a cute name. If you have long hair, this is something for you to fear. If you don't, it's just something to make you shudder.

I knew that having long hair put me at high risk: it could get caught in machinery, yanked by people behind me in line when I took cuts, and occasionally obscure my view during my nighttime ninja brawls. What I didn't know was that I could be brewing something as repulsive as an alien chest burster inside me.

Occasionally, women experiencing abdominal pain go to the hospital to find that there are dark masses in their stomach. When they are opened up, doctors pull out cat-sized hair balls. Why? Because your parents were wrong when they told you that gum stays in your system for years without being digested. Actually, it's hair. Hair is made of keratin, the same stuff that goes into hooves and horns. It's a tough substance. Tough enough that people have to treat hair with acids and bases at temperatures above 100 Celsius to get it to break down even slightly. The human body can't reproduce those conditions.

The human body also can't flush the hair out of the digestive system. Doctors aren't sure why it stays in the stomach, but they believe that it's too slippery to get pulled out along with the rest of the stomach contents, and it's thin enough to hide in any folds. It does attach itself to other hair that's comes down the hatch, though. Generally, this is only a problem when a person compulsively eats, chews on, or sucks, their hair. Enough of it gets swallowed that it starts to accumulate. Still, because the hair can stay in the stomach for years, even a little goes a long way.

By why is it called Rapunzel syndrome? When the hairball gets big enough, part of it is excreted by the stomach. That part doesn't ever sever its attachment to the larger ball of hair. It just stretches out in a long trail of hair, through the small gut, and into the bowels. When doctors remove it, this long rope of hair can stretch for feet through a person's lower digestive system. It looks like, you guessed it, the trail of hair left by Rapunzel.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go shave my head.

Via NCBI, MadSci Network.