Let’s Talk About Breast Implant Illness: The Facts, The Risks, and What to Do if You Are Concerned

At The Swan Center, helping people feel amazing is what we love most about our jobs. We also pride ourselves on prioritizing our patients’ safety, health, and happiness, and believe in discussing the potential risks of any cosmetic procedure openly and honestly.

Today we want to talk about a phenomenon called breast implant illness. Several high profile patients have spoken out about health problems they have experienced after undergoing breast augmentation, and many more women across the U.S. have joined the conversation on social media, sharing concerns about symptoms ranging from headaches to hair loss, which they believe may be related to their implants.

As physicians, we believe it’s our duty to help answer your questions and discuss the issue frankly and fairly. Below, we’ve addressed the top questions about breast implant illness, based on the current information we have.

What is breast implant illness?

Breast implant illness is a term used to describe systematic symptoms that a patient believes relate to her breast implants. If this sounds like a vague definition, that’s because defining breast implant illness is challenging.

Unlike many diseases, such as chicken pox or diabetes, breast implant illness does not have consistent symptoms or a certain known cause. The common denominator is that the patients have breast implants, they have developed one or more symptoms after having implants placed, and they feel their symptoms are linked to their breast implants.

It’s worth noting that breast implant illness is not the same as breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), which is a specific, very rare, and treatable cancer that has been determined to be linked to breast implants. (You can learn more about BIA-ALCL on this post from our plastic surgeons.)

What are the symptoms of breast implant illness?

Patients have reported a wide variety of symptoms they believe are associated with breast implant illness. These include: headaches, chronic fatigue, body aches, generalized pain, hair loss, increased sensitivity to light, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, rashes, unusual body odor, and more.

These symptoms are also commonly experienced by men and women who have never had breast implants, which makes it difficult to narrow down breast implants as the definitive source or cause of the symptoms in a specific patient. However, we must consider the possibility that any of these symptoms could be related to the breast implants.

At the Swan Center, we continue to keep close tabs on all research and testing related to breast implants (as we have since our founding), and detail all scientifically proven risks in our patient materials.

If you are concerned that your breast implants may be causing symptoms, share your concerns with your doctor and your plastic surgeon. Your doctor can suggest testing or treatment and, if desired, your plastic surgeon can detail your breast implant removal options.

How common is breast implant illness?

Breast implant illness is a relatively new concept in the medical community. We have witnessed an increase in patients reporting suspected breast implant illness symptoms in recent years, in large part thanks to social media groups, which have raised awareness of the concept of breast implant illness, as well as provided a platform for patients to report and discuss their symptoms. We don’t point this out to diminish concerns, but rather to help explain what may seem like a sudden increase in patients asking if symptoms they experience could be related to their breast implants.

Because symptoms are subjective and vary widely, and there has yet to be consensus in the medical community that breast implant illness is a definable condition, we cannot specify the exact risk of developing symptoms after breast augmentation. Moreover, there is no existing means to test specifically for and definitively diagnose breast implant illness. Plastic surgery societies such as The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) have begun initiatives to better track and examine reports of breast implant illness, including a scientific study and surveys to help plastic surgeons and patients document any symptoms.

Our plastic surgeons believe the women who are reporting symptoms and pledge to help each woman who visits our practice consider all possible sources and solutions (including the possibility of implant removal), to help them find the best course of treatment to feel better. In short, we support each individual woman’s personal choice, whether it is to keep or remove her implants for any reason.

Have breast implants been linked to chronic inflammatory symptoms?

Earlier we mentioned BIA-ALCL, which is thought to result from chronic inflammation in the biofilm, or natural microbial layer, surrounding a breast implant. However, the scientific studies we have to date show that this is only a factor in BIA-ALCL, and the symptoms have only been linked to textured implants, which have a greater surface area on which microbes can gather. Symptomatically, this inflammatory response usually presents as seroma (fluid buildup) and/or pain that is isolated to the breast.

To date, there is no known link between systemic inflammatory symptoms (i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, etc.) and breast implants, although many women with such symptoms suspect their implants play a role. As mentioned earlier, patient/doctor survey initiatives and further scientific research are currently underway to help identify any possible patterns.

What should I do if I think I have breast implant illness?

If you are experiencing symptoms that concern you, see your primary care physician or other appropriate specialist. Your doctor may recommend further tests to identify or rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, and they can help you manage your symptoms while you consider options.

If you believe your breast implants are a contributing factor, share your concerns with your doctor and with your plastic surgeon. While there isn’t yet means to medically confirm or disprove a specific association, they can share their professional knowledge and help you understand your options if you wish to pursue breast implant removal.

Because there is no way to confirm that symptoms are related to breast implants, there is no guarantee that breast implant removal surgery will relieve symptoms.

Should I have my breast implants removed?

With some complications, such as capsular contracture, undergoing breast implant removal and/or replacement is a clear option and path to relief. However, it’s not so cut-and-dried with breast implant illness.

First, because there is no way to confirm that symptoms are related to breast implants, there is no guarantee that breast implant removal surgery, or explantation, will relieve symptoms for an individual woman. The patient must undergo surgery and see if her symptoms are relieved afterward, knowing that the additional surgery also carries some risks and requires recovery time. That said, in the hands of an experienced, board certified plastic surgeon, risks are low and many women who have had implants removed are glad to eliminate them as a source of concern, even if they continue to experience symptoms.

For our patients who are unhappy with their implants for any reason, we offer explantation surgery as an option. If both the patient and the plastic surgeon believe the potential benefits of removing breast implants (whether for health, lifestyle, or aesthetic reasons) outweigh the risks, that is what truly matters.

Is en bloc capsulectomy the best implant removal option?

Many breast implant illness websites and social media forums advocate for en bloc capsulectomy—an explantation technique that removes the breast implant and surrounding scar tissue capsule in one single unit. It is thought by some doctors and patients that leaving the breast implant “sealed” inside the capsule most effectively removes all the matter that may be causing symptoms.

Indeed, for some patients, en bloc capsulectomy is the right approach; for example, if a known complication or disease such as BIA-ALCL is suspected. However, en bloc capsulectomy has some drawbacks to be aware of. First, the incisions required to remove an implant en bloc are usually much longer than those required for other types of breast surgery, and this results in additional scarring in most cases. Additionally, if there is not enough natural tissue between the capsule and the surrounding muscles, rib cage, or other vital organs, en bloc capsulectomy cannot be performed safely.

If you are considering en bloc capsulectomy, make sure the plastic surgeon you choose is highly experienced in the technique and that you fully understand the incision plan, risks, and differences in results vs standard breast implant explantation before moving forward.

We welcome your questions about breast implant illness

At The Swan Center, we remain dedicated to providing the highest standard of safety and care. Whether you are considering your options for Atlanta breast implants and want to be sure you are making the right choice for yourself, or you are concerned about the possibility of breast implant illness, we are here to listen and help you make safe, considered choices. Please call us at 770-667-0904 or contact us online anytime.

Leave a Comment