The Surgeon Minute

Breast Implant Illness is a Real Issue

Breast Implant Illness is a Real Issue

Breast implant illness is not a well defined disease, and, unfortunately, this is the problem. A non-insignificant population of breast augmentation patients feel that their implants are making them sick. Sufferers complain of a wide array of symptoms ranging from headaches and brain fog to anxiety and joint pain. They have typically undergone a litany of inconclusive tests before arriving in a plastic surgeon’s office frustrated, angry, and confused.

When faced with no good answers from science, they want their implants out. Without medical evidence that the breast implants themselves are the actual problem, too many surgeons have often been dismissive. Dr. Anu Bajaj of Oklahoma City discusses this controversial topic, and why she always removes a patient’s breast implants if she thinks it’s the right course of action.

What is Breast Implant Illness?  

Breast Implant Illness (BII) has been gaining a lot of press recently. It’s defined as “a constellation of symptoms that many women experience and a lot of women believe are related to their implants,” explains Dr. Bajaj.

These symptoms include:

  • brain fog
  • headaches
  • joint pain
  • hair loss
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • rashes
  • anxiety
  • sleep issues
  • depression
  • photosensitivity
  • hormone problems
  • chills
  • neurological issues

Breast implant related illness symptoms.

The problem is these symptoms are vast, vague and could be caused by a myriad of underlying issues – many that have little to nothing to do with implants, such as general aging. “Basically, it’s not a well-defined disease” says Dr. Bajaj. 

Plastic Surgeons Slow to Take Breast Implant Illness Seriously

“Because we didn’t have the science initially to understand it, we ignored it,” explains Dr. Bajaj. Women would come into the office complaining of a wide array of not necessarily life-threatening symptoms and the plastic surgeon would examine their breast implants and they’d be fine. They would then “dismiss” these women, who seemingly had no known medical issue. This is not what any woman or patient ever wants to hear.

“You want someone to listen to your symptoms,” says Dr. Bajaj. “As surgeons, we are finally realizing that we have got to pay attention because there are some women who do not do well with implants.” It’s important for plastic surgeons to study who these women are so that they can better categorize what these symptoms mean. It is impossible to treat something that is not defined. The question is: Who will do ok with implants and who will not? “ We just don’t have that information at this point and time,” explains Dr. Bajaj.

Monitor Your Implants with an Annual Follow Up  

If you are concerned that your breast implants may be making you sick, what should you do? Every woman with breast implants needs to be examined annually — whether you feel bad or not. It allows the surgeon to monitor what is going on, if anything, with your implant.

The unfortunate reality is, “many of us, if we are doing well, blow it off,” explains Dr. Bajaj. Life gets busy and there is a reason for the old adage the squeaky wheel gets the grease. “I would encourage every woman to follow up with their doctor on an annual basis so that we can monitor your implants and see if you are having any issues or concerns related to them,” Bajaj shares.

How to Treat Breast Implant Illness 

Facebook and online groups on breast implant illness are an important forum for sufferers to get support and find information. However, this information is not always accurate. Most online groups believe that the only way to treat breast implant illness is to remove your breast implants with what is called an en bloc capsulectomy.

The problem with this is not every patient can have this method of removal performed. Sometimes a capsule – the pocket where the implant rests – is too thin or close to areas that will be harmed if the capsule is to be removed. “As surgeon and a physician, there is no way to guarantee that that’s possible,” explains Bajaj. “It’s hard to predict what we will find in the OR.”

Patient Safety is Paramount

The location of the breast implant also plays a role in whether or not an en bloc removal is possible. When an implant is located under the muscle, and the capsule is tissue paper thin, it can stick to your rib cage. The surgeon is then trying to remove this tissue paper-thin capsule from your rib cage without causing further damage to the:

  • ribs
  • underlying muscles
  • lungs
  • heart 

Patients must realize that surgery is still surgery, and no surgeon of worth will perform elective operations that would do more harm to the patient than abstaining. A cornerstone of medical philosophy centers around this: primum non nocere – first, do no harm. That said, there are other options to remove the implants, and many patients find the alternate approaches have more or less solved their issues.

“In reality, I truly believe that if you feel that your implants are making you ill, we should take them out,” says Dr. Bajaj. “I am here as your advocate, but as your advocate and your surgeon, it is also my job that I don’t do more harm than necessary.”

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