What is breast implant illness?
Breast implant illness is a term used by women who have symptoms they attributed to their breast implants. But it’s not a true medical term. So far in the studies that have looked at women with these symptoms, there are no commonalities. So no labs that are consistently abnormal, and no symptoms that are common among all (or a large proportion of) these women.
But breast implant illness is a real thing.
Even though science hasn’t done a great job of defining breast implant illness, there are enough women experiencing symptoms that improve after removing their implants, we know something is going on. I think the worst thing plastic surgeons could do is brush off these cases. Instead, we need to find out how best to help these women, and that involves figuring out exactly what is going on. To that end, the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has created a task force to study Breast Implant Illness.
Fibromyalgia was originally brushed off as a real disease because it was so hard to pin down in terms of common symptoms or lab test results. But now that we have a better concept of what causes fibromyalgia and what the symptoms are, we have done a much better job of helping patients live a better quality of life.
How do we treat breast implant illness?
Because every woman seems to have different symptoms and different (or no) lab abnormalities, how do we define the best treatment? Unfortunately we can’t. Some women do have an improvement in symptoms after removing breast implants, and some do not. Because the result is different for everyone, it’s currently impossible to recommend the proper method to remove implants. I’m hopeful that as Breast Implant Illness is studied more, we’ll have better recommendations based on scientific evidence to help these women.
It’s easy to be misled.
If you’re concerned your breast implants are making you sick, you may start with an internet search. But there is a lack of really good data telling us how to treat breast implant illness, and even what it is.
Does that mean you won’t find recommendations on the internet? No- of course not. There are many breast implant illness websites out there giving specific treatment recommendations. But unfortunately these recommendations are not based on science. One example: en-bloc capsulectomy for removal of implants to “cure” Breast Implant Illness.
En bloc capsulectomy removes the breast implant and all the scar tissue around the implant.
Sounds great, right? But performing an en-bloc capsulectomy on every woman who is concerned about breast implant illness raises several issues:
- There’s no proof it’s medically necessary. Because every woman has a different set of symptoms and a different response to removing her implants, it’s impossible prove en-bloc capsulectomy actually works.
- It is potentially dangerous. When implants are under the muscle, the capsule behind the implants is attached to the ribs and the muscles between them (intercostal muscles). Trying to peel this capsule off the bone can actually damage the underlying lungs. It’s hard to justify this risk if we don’t have a proven benefit.
- It’s often impossible. The capsule is scar tissue around the implant. If the scar tissue is very thick then it’s easy to remove. But some women don’t form thick scar tissue, so there’s literally nothing to remove.
What about the “experts” in Breast Implant Illness?
So why do some surgeons profess to be experts in treating breast implant illness and recommend en bloc capsulectomy? I can only speculate, as their recommendations are not based on scientific evidence. But women suffering from breast implant illness are a vulnerable population. They feel like their concerns aren’t always being taken seriously, and they desperately want to feel better. Which means they are at risk for being scammed.
Surgeons who “specialize” in Breast Implant Illness often charge women thousands of dollars out of pocket to remove their implants en-bloc. Yet there’s no medical proof that it’s necessary or that it even works.
As I mentioned above, I am confident that Breast Implant Illness is a real issue. But first we need to better characterize and define the illness. Then we can develop treatments that consistently improve symptoms. Until then, offering a surgical “cure” that is unproven and potentially dangerous is completely unethical.
If you have questions about this tope, please feel free to leave them in the comments or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s an important topic, and I want to help spread accurate and correct information.
Dr. Greer is a plastic surgeon in Cleveland, Ohio. She helps women regain their confidence by getting rid of sagginess, wrinkles, and stubborn fat. Check out her website for more information, or to download a FREE copy of “The Busy Mom’s Guide to Plastic Surgery.“