The last time I got a haircut, I spent the five or so minutes it took for my stylist to wash my hair thinking about death. Contemplating my mortality is not so unusual an activity for me, but there are places I have counted on for a break, and historically the hair salon was one of them. I devote too much time to worrying I’m about to succumb to all kinds of unlikely health crises, but not even I could think up anything likely to kill me in the hair salon. But then I read an article (well, four articles) about something called “beauty parlor stroke syndrome.”
Besides being a term perfectly engineered to startle those of us with easily startled dispositions, “beauty parlor stroke syndrome” describes a phenomenon by which extending one’s neck over the ledge of a sink can diminish blood supply to the brain, potentially causing a stroke.
The phenomenon reentered the news last year after a woman suffered stroke symptoms not long after visiting her San Diego salon, and subsequently sued for damages. Media coverage of the incident gave mixed messages as to the so-called syndrome’s likelihood. BuzzFeed’s story called it “so rare,” but also quoted the plaintiff, Elizabeth Smith (understandably looking for answers), as saying that “80 percent” of stylists knew “you could have a stroke getting your hair washed.” That Smith arrived at this figure by asking an unspecified number of friends to ask their hair stylists if they’d ever heard of beauty parlor stroke syndrome matters a lot in a scientific sense, but for pseudo-hypochondriacs like me, seeing that kind of number—80 percent!—outweighs all reason. Now my mind has transformed it from an extremely rare medical event unlikely to affect anyone but elderly and other at-risk patients into a widespread beauty-salon conspiracy. All along I thought my hair stylist was a nice lady with great lipstick. Now, I wonder, is she knowingly and carelessly putting my life at risk each time she tells me to lean back? I fidgeted all the way through my most recent hair washing, trying to hold my neck above the sink as though mere neck-to-sink contact was the thing that might kill me.