Women consider getting breast implants for many reasons. In addition to being an important part of breast reconstruction surgeries, it is also one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries. In 2018 alone, 313,735 women chose to undergo breast augmentation surgery (1). Unfortunately, thousands of women now live with systemic illnesses and health problems that they believe are related to their breast implants.
It is so common that patients have developed a name for these types of conditions, Breast Implant Illness (BII). Many doctors and health officials claim that there is no proof of a link between the implants and most conditions that women believe result from their implants. Does this mean that there truly is no connection?
What is Breast Implant Illness (BII)?
Breast Implant Illness is a term used to describe a range of autoimmune symptoms that are believed to be caused by women’s breast implants. It is not currently an official medical diagnosis. This is partly due to the fact that a woman with BII can experience a wide variety of symptoms that could lead to a diagnosis of multiple autoimmune disorders such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Scleroderma, Lupus, and Polymyositis or Dermatomyositis. The symptoms rarely fall neatly under one specific autoimmune disorder. Sometimes, autoimmune disorder symptoms appear within a year of receiving the implants but more often it can take years for the symptoms to become severe enough for a woman to seek medical treatment. Commonly reported symptoms include:
Cognitive impairment, brain fog, memory loss
Discoloration of hands or feet
Dry skin and/or hair
Muscle pain, myalgias
Numbness or tingling in upper and lower limbs
Sensitivity to light
Shortness of breath
If so many women believe breast implants cause BII, why are they FDA approved? Doesn’t that mean they are safe?
In determining the safety of breast implants, the FDA relied on a variety of studies that had major flaws in the way they were conducted or were never completed. Many of the clinical trials only followed women for a few months or years after they received implants. Since autoimmune disorders take time to develop enough to cause a woman to seek help, long-term studies were needed to make an accurate judgment on the safety of breast implants. The FDA claims that they have not detected an association between silicone gel-filled breast implants and connective tissue disease, breast cancer, or reproductive problems but also states that
“In order to rule out these and other complications, studies would need to be larger and longer than these conducted so far.”
Many of the studies only included women who were hospitalized for a condition, and a few included women who were officially diagnosed. This is problematic because very few people with autoimmune disorders are hospitalized specifically for the disorder. Additionally, since the studies were short term, even those that included women with an official diagnosis would not be able to accurately show the risk, since it often takes years to reach a diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder. The studies also excluded women who had a previous history of autoimmune diseases, so it is impossible to know the effect of a breast implant on the health of a woman with an existing autoimmune disease.
If you would like to more deeply research the information yourself, Diana Zuckerman and Varuna Srinivasan of the National Center for Health Research created an in-depth review called “Breast Implant Illnesses: What’s the Evidence?” in which they discuss whether the data proves that BII exists, and explain the flaws in the studies presented to the FDA. They include links to the studies that the FDA relied upon in making their decision to approve breast implants. You can also look into the information provided by the FDA regarding the reports, research, and materials used in determining the safety of breast implants.
Does the research prove BII exists?
A 2017 study by Jan Cohen Tervaert, et. al. discussed recent findings which show that patients with silicone breast implants may be more likely to have autoimmune/inflammatory syndrome by adjuvants (ASIA), allergies, autoimmune diseases, immune deficiencies, and lymphomas. They concluded that “Silicones can migrate from the implant through the body and can induce a chronic inflammatory process (2).”
A 2018 study by Abdulla Watad, et. al. analyzed the link between silicone breast implants and autoimmune disorders. They found that silicone breast implants seem to be associated with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with an autoimmune or rheumatic disorder (3). Sjögren’s syndrome, systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), and sarcoidosis were the disorders most highly associated with silicone breast implants. Common symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are dry mouth and eyes but it can also affect your joints, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, digestive organs, and nerves. Scleroderma causes your body to produce too much collagen, which may cause many symptoms including thickening skin, hair loss, and joint pain. Sarcoidosis most often causes a persistent dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, and painful joints.