Florence Mussat, M.D.
680 N Lake Shore Dr. #1030 Chicago, IL 60611 (312) 751-9000

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Understanding Breast Implant Illness

Going to the doctor with a variety of debilitating, mysterious symptoms is difficult enough; being told those symptoms have no cause can be crushing, embarrassing, and hurtful. Unfortunately, this is the experience thousands of women suffering from breast implant illness are forced to endure. At this time, breast implant illness is not recognized by the scientific community. Still, Dr. Florence Mussat has personally treated numerous women who claim their symptoms were relieved after they underwent  en bloc breast implant removal. In her view, it’s essential that medical practitioners retain an open mind and persist in trying to understand the causes of breast implant illness.

What is Breast Implant Illness?

“Breast implant illness” is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of symptoms believed to be related to silicone breast implants. Breast implant illness is different than having a ruptured implant. Ruptured silicone implants leak silicone gel into the body and usually cause the rapid onset of localized irritation (requiring immediate explant surgery). On the other hand, women with Breast implant illness complain their symptoms developed gradually after having undergone breast augmentation with implants. Patients with breast implant illness report experiencing fatigue, brain fog, chronic pain (either around the breasts or throughout the body), skin rashes, an irregular heart rate, anxiety, hair loss, and endocrine dysfunction, among other symptoms.

What Causes Breast Implant Illness?

The confusion over breast implant illness stems from the fact that silicone is thought to be a biocompatible material. Silicone is inert, meaning that it shouldn’t—in theory—react with human tissue or leach chemicals into the body. For this reason, silicone is used in a wide range of implantable medical devices, as well as being the material of choice for cosmetic implants.

This does not, of course, mean that silicone is guaranteed to be without risk. For many years, experts believed that the plastics used in baby bottles were safe; today, however, we know that the BPA they contained can cause a wide range of health problems. And silicone, while it appears to be inert, is not a completely natural substance. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not derived from sand alone; it’s actually a composite material that contains a number of synthetic additives. It’s, therefore, possible that silicone contains a compound we simply don’t yet realize can be harmful.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different. Substances that don’t cause any adverse reaction in one individual can provoke a dramatic immune response in another; this is why allergies exist. It’s possible that some patients’ bodies identify silicone implants as “invaders,” and this sets off a cascade of troubling symptoms. Emerging evidence has already linked silicone breast implants to a slightly elevated risk of anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in the immune system, lending credence to the idea that silicone implants can disrupt normal immune function. According to a large-scale study of 99,993 breast augmentation patients, silicone breast implants may be linked to an increase in the risk of developing other autoimmune diseases (Sjogren syndrome, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis) and cancers (melanoma). This study, which was conducted by the Department of Plastic Surgery at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, also found that having breast implants can lead to reproductive challenges, notably stillbirth.

Bacteria may also play a role in the development of breast implant illness. Research has shown that most cases of breast implant illness occur in patients who have had textured (rather than smooth) silicone implants inserted. It is thought that the textured surface of these implants gives bacteria a better “foothold,” allowing it to proliferate. The patient’s immune system must then constantly fight back against this low-grade infection, giving rise to ongoing flu-like symptoms.

Regardless of what causes breast implant illness, it’s obvious that this condition is a genuine phenomenon. Many women complaining of breast implant illness who have undergone explant surgery report that their symptoms resolved shortly afterward. Clearly, more research needs to be done: Only when we understand this puzzling condition can we make breast augmentation safe for everybody.