If you have breast implants or are considering them, you may have concerns about something called “breast implant illness.” While the medical community hasn’t yet established enough to back up its existence, the problem seems very real for a number of women who have had breast implants. If this is a problem you’re currently grappling with, finding relief from your often debilitating symptoms is probably a priority right now. Read on for some answers.
Many Cases Of Breast Implant Illness Have Been Reported
Broadly, the term “breast implant illness” is used to collectively describe symptoms or problems that may be linked to the breast implant. Unfortunately, there are no set diagnostic tests to confirm this is indeed the root of the problem, nor is there any clear recognizable conditions of having this disease (pathophysiology). That said, women in support groups online list these as the issues associated with what they’ve dubbed breast implant illness:1
- Body odor
- Hair loss
- Chronic pain
- Irregular heart rate
- Endocrine problems
- Neurologic abnormalities
But The Medical Community Does Not Recognize Breast Implant Illness As Real
Although plastic surgeons do hear of instances of this issue from their patients, breast implant illness is not something officially recognized as a problem. There are reports of women developing problems after having implants and those issues ceasing once they had them removed.2 But when the scientific and research community launched investigations, however, the results on the link with implants haven’t always been compelling or conclusive.
Evidence To Suggest Link To Autoimmune Or Systemic Disease Is Inadequate
Some contend that breast implants may impact immune function and even trigger autoimmune disorders or systemic illnesses like cancer or connective tissue disease. However, at present, there isn’t enough evidence to support this theory either.3 Studies over time, both a few decades ago and more recently, have concluded that there is no evidence that having cosmetic silicone breast implants elevates your risk of traditional connective tissue diseases or atypical connective tissue disease.4
However, in spite of the lack of more extensive studies, there are small ones that seem to indicate women who have silicone breast implants have higher levels of immunoglobulins like IgE. Elevated IgE is an indication that your immune system is reacting to what it sees as a threat and is noticed in those with inflammatory diseases, infections, and malignancies.5 This hints at a possible connection to a risk of autoimmune and other diseases. But again, nothing conclusive has come through yet.
There’s No Evidence To Clarify Which Type Of Implants Causes Breast Implant Illness
If you are trying to minimize the risk of breast implant illness by picking saline implants over silicone implants or vice versa, you may need to think again. While there are advantages and drawbacks for each, not enough is known about breast implant illness in this context. So make an informed decision based on other criteria like aesthetic appeal and possible complications. Saline feels less natural and may deflate with time. Silicone is also less likely to rupture than saline, but if it does rupture, it may cause siliconomas, whereas saline is absorbed naturally and expelled from the body.6
No Mainstream Treatment, But Behavioral Medicine May Help
Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for this problem. However, some researchers suggest that someone complaining of breast implant illness may be better served by behavioral medicine after ruling out any known causes of the symptoms. Stress or chronic fatigue could be to blame. There are also suggestions that some of these symptoms attributed to breast implant illness could actually be the result of another condition in the body, like fibromyalgia. For instance, what some say is silicone-induced atypical connective tissue disease may actually be the result of fibromyalgia. This condition is also known to cause pain, tenderness in multiple locations in the body, fatigue, as well as heart palpitations, headaches, joint swelling and more. So how does one fix the problem?7
While some symptoms may be linked to fibromyalgia rather than being a standalone breast implant illness, you should know that having a ruptured or leaking silicone breast implant puts you at risk of developing fibromyalgia.8
If you are struggling with symptoms of what you perceive as breast implant illness, try the following steps:
- Have medical tests to rule out any other medical conditions that may be causing the symptoms.
- Get a psychological evaluation or consultation with a psychiatrist to see if therapy could help you.
- Focus on coping with the problem and recovery.
- Exercise can often help reduce some symptoms. If you are overweight, weight loss may help.
- Stress management is crucial, so take up some stress management activities like yoga, meditation, or tai chi.
- Discuss the option of cognitive behavioral therapy with your doctor. This may help alleviate the symptoms or, at the very least, help you cope better.
50% Of Women With Breast Implant Illness Recoup After Removal Of Implant
If you are experiencing a diminished quality of life or facing a lot of pain and discomfort as well as anxiety because of your implants and the possible breast implant illness, it may be best to consult your surgeon and schedule a removal of the implant. Whatever be the cause or underlying pathology of the problem, what does seem to emerge as a pattern is that the explanation or removal of the implant seems to help ease symptoms for about 50% of the women who opt to do this.9
There Are Other Established Risks From Breast Implants You Should Watch Out For
While there are no clear guidelines on breast implant illness, there are other risks that are acknowledged when it comes to implants. Many of the risks of breast implants come from the surgical procedure and its aftermath. As the American Society of Plastic Surgeons points out, these may include:10
- Poor scarring or tight scar tissue (capsular contracture)
- Fluid accumulation (seroma)
- Persistent pain
- Wrinkling of the skin in the area of the implant
- Nerve problems: After breast implant surgery, some women experience less or more sensitivity in their nipples and breasts. Some may find they become completely desensitized. This effect may be short-lived in some while permanent in others.11
There are, of course, the usual risks associated with a surgery like anesthesia risk, possibility of bleeding, and infection at the site. In addition, the implant may be placed wrongly or could leak or rupture, necessitating intervention and possibly a second corrective surgery.
Implants Could Also Slightly Increase Risk Of Certain Cancers
One study found that having breast implants could marginally elevate your risk of anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL), a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warns against a very low but increased risk of developing this kind of cancer when you have breast implants.12 However, it shouldn’t worry you too much. Just 1 in 7000 women who get breast implants will develop ALCL by the time they are 75 years old, which means your overall risk of developing it is still low.13
While no other cancer link has been publicized, a separate study from 2001 found that women with breast implants had a higher risk of leukemia as well as cancers of the vulva, brain, and stomach.14 Do check the latest updates from official cancer societies or foundations before you get your implants if this is a concern.
|↑1, ↑9||Tang, Sherry YQ, Jacqueline S. Israel, and Ahmed M. Afifi. “Breast Implant Illness: Symptoms, Patient Concerns, and the Power of Social Media.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery 140, no. 5 (2017): 765e-766e.|
|↑2||Woman in warning over breast implant illness. The British Broadcasting Corporation.|
|↑3, ↑7||Dush, D. M. “Breast implants and illness: a model of psychological factors.” Annals of the rheumatic diseases 60, no. 7 (2001): 653-657.|
|↑4||Lipworth, Loren, Robert E. Tarone, and Joseph K. McLaughlin. “Silicone breast implants and connective tissue disease: an updated review of the epidemiologic evidence.” Annals of plastic surgery 52, no. 6 (2004): 598-601.|
|↑5||Bekerecioglu, Mehmet, Ahmet Mesut Onat, Mustafa Tercan, Hakan Buyukhatipoglu, Metin Karakok, Daghan Isik, and Omer Bulut. “The association between silicone implants and both antibodies and autoimmune diseases.” Clinical rheumatology 27, no. 2 (2008): 147-150.|
|↑6, ↑11||Breast enlargement (implants). National Health Service.|
|↑8||Brown, S. Lori, G. E. N. E. Pennello, WENDIE A. Berg, MARY SCOTT Soo, and MICHAEL S. Middleton. “Silicone gel breast implant rupture, extracapsular silicone, and health status in a population of women.” The Journal of rheumatology 28, no. 5 (2001): 996-1003.|
|↑10||Breast Augmentation.American Society of Plastic Surgeons.|
|↑12||Study Estimates Risk of Rare Cancer From Breast Implants. Breastcancer.org.|
|↑13||de Boer, Mintsje, Flora E. van Leeuwen, Michael Hauptmann, Lucy IH Overbeek, Jan Paul de Boer, Nathalie J. Hijmering, Arthur Sernee et al. “Breast Implants and the Risk of Anaplastic Large-Cell Lymphoma in the Breast.” JAMA oncology (2018).|
|↑14||Brinton, Louise A., Jay H. Lubin, Mary Cay Burich, Theodore Colton, S. Lori Brown, and Robert N. Hoover. “Cancer risk at sites other than the breast following augmentation mammoplasty.” Annals of Epidemiology 11, no. 4 (2001): 248-256.|