In recent years, the popularity of breast implants has increased significantly. This is in line with the growth of social media and the growing celebrity endorsement of cosmetic procedures. Alongside this growth in patient uptake has been an unsettling trend of women reporting a wide array of unpleasant and sometimes concerning symptoms that they believe to be associated with their silicone breast implants. This complex phenomenon has been referred to in the mainstream media and academic literature as “breast implant illness (BII)”. A quick look at the online landscape highlights the weight of the issue:
The above graph shows the google search trends for the term “Breast Implant Illness” over the past decade. As you can see, this topic really only gained traction in the past 4 years, reaching its peak in 2019. Likewise, this phenomenon has taken the social media world by storm, with thousands of women joining Facebook support groups dedicating to “Breast Implant Illness” healing.
The most popular of the groups is Breast Implant Illness and Healing by Nicole, with a huge membership of 125,000 women, averaging 300 posts per day. On top of these online communities is the countless news articles delving deep into the personal experiences of women with these self-reported symptoms. Among these articles, are stories of patients citing blurred vision, memory loss, body sores, heart palpitations, food intolerance, and more. One patient stated that she had spent over $30,000 on treatment for symptoms and medical advice to no avail, before implant removal was considered. This patient stated that after the removal of her implants, her symptoms disappeared. So what’s the deal? Do all patients experience breast implant illness? How do breast implants cause so many different symptoms? Is it even a real thing? There are certainly a lot of grey areas surrounding this topic, and this blog post aims to address just a few.
What is Breast Implant Illness?
Breast implant illness (BII) is a relatively new phenomenon, proliferating in recent years alongside the rapid growth in social media and the impact of online communications. There is no clear definition for the illness. Many sources loosely define it as a “term used by some women and doctors to refer to a wide range of symptoms developed following breast augmentation”. BII is not yet a recognised medical condition, and this can cause significant frustration in patients who feel their symptoms are a direct result of their breast implants.
The recency of this concept suggests that the shared experiences of women on social media fills a void for thousands of women across the globe that are lost and confused by their symptoms. The myriad of symptoms described can include—but are not limited to—the following:
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Memory and concentration problems
- Breathing issues
- Sleeping difficulty
- Rashes and skin conditions
- Dry mouth and eyes
- Digestive issues
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjogren’s syndrome
With so many different symptoms (the list goes on), and so little uniformity in experiences, it can be difficult for many to understand BII. It is even harder to diagnose or treat a condition that does not technically exist yet. There is still a lot of contention in the public discussion and literature surrounding BII. So what is the science behind BII and how much do we actually know?
What is the science behind it?
There are many different views when it comes to research on BII; some corroborating, some conflicting, but all sharing the same sentiment that much more research is required to fully understand it. According to the FDA, the risk of complications or adverse outcomes due to breast complications is around 1%. Yet the FDA also reported statistically significant increases in fatigue, joint swelling, frequent muscle cramps, and fibromyalgia among augmentation patients. A study in the journal of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery concluded that there was no association between breast implants and an increased risk of depression or neurological disease – two key self-reported symptoms associated with BII. However, newer studies did find an association between silicone breast implants and certain auto-immune diseases. This suggested the potential for increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma, and sarcoidosis. The FDA did not find their evidence to be sufficient however, and many experts state the findings were inconclusive. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) found a statistically significant increase in reported connective tissue disease among breast augmentation patients. This said, they also found self-reported symptoms to be flawed, for example patients reporting rheumatoid arthritis who actually had osteoarthritis. The findings suggested that there was an increase in symptoms for women with implants, but it is unclear whether there was an increase in specific diagnoses A study paper in the Journal of Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed the results of 32 studies regarding breast implants and health conditions and found no evidence to suggest silicone gel implants led to long-term health complications. It is clear from the existing research that there is little consistency in reported symptoms and each sample is vastly different, making it difficult to define a distinct syndrome. It is clear that at this stage, we do not have enough data to confirm or disconfirm BII, however the lack of a direct and scientific link does not indicate that the symptoms are not real.
According to Harvard Health Publishing , the results are inconclusive when it comes to defining breast implant illness. We are yet to figure out how breast implants could be the cause of such a constellation of symptoms. They state that some cases are likely due to undiagnosed auto-immune disease, and of the women who state an improvement in symptoms after explant, there is the potential for subconscious bias to believe the symptoms have gotten better. Dr. Pusic from Harvard Medical School states that there is a definite possibility however that some women have a susceptibility to problems related to breast implants.
What is the future?
As you can likely tell from this article, the whole concept of BII is messy, complicated, contradicting, and contentious. There are those who are suffering from debilitating symptoms they are certain are related to their implants, and there are those who are attributing these symptoms to placebo and believe self-diagnoses is unreliable. There are those who have been cured of their symptoms after removal, and those who are adamant that there is no scientific explanation for the existence of BII. What is the truth? The truth is we have a long way to go. More research, more recognition, and more interest in BII is required.
With so many women forming a community surrounding these concerning symptoms, it cannot be ignored. Whether these symptoms are truly a result of their breast implants is yet to be understood, but the anecdotal evidence is too strong to be disregarded.
Do you have breast implants? What’s your take on BII? Have you experienced any concerning symptoms since your surgery? Contact the BRAS clinic today for your routine breast check and ultrasound, entirely bulk-billed.