Assessing the Risks
In 1999, a report from the Institute of Medicine stated that women with silicone breast implants are no more likely to develop life-threatening illnesses, but it's clear that they can cause serious problems.
Researchers found that the most serious complications associated with silicone breast implants occur when the tissue around them contracts, when the implant ruptures, or when infection occurs. The risk of these problems increases with time. Studies have shown that about 26% of silicone implants rupture after 12 years and 55% after about 16 years.
"As with any type of implant or medical device, there are going to be local complications, and breast implants are no different," Khune tells WebMD. "No implant is risk free, and no device can claim to last forever."
Research submitted to the FDA by Inamed shows that most implant ruptures were revealed by MRI screening conducted as a part of its clinical trial. But experts are concerned that these "silent ruptures" may go undetected for years and cause serious problems or deformities in women without adequate screening procedures in place for all women with silicone implants.
Zuckerman says that silicone gel eventually starts to break down and when it leaks and spreads into the body, it causes lumps under the skin that can be a real mess to clean up surgically.
"When you try to remove a broken and leaking implant, you often find the only way to get it out is to take breast tissue and other things along with it and you end up with an expense and difficult six-hour operation costing up to $20,000, none of which is covered by insurance," says Zuckerman.
Other potential health effects associated with implants to be discussed at the meeting include:
- Cancer risk. Studies have not found an increased risk of breast cancer among women with silicone breast implants, but higher rates of other cancers, such as lung, cervical, vulvar, and leukemia have been reported.
- Mammography difficulties. Implants may make some breast cancers harder to detect or cause pain, rupture, and leakage during mammography, but the research is not consistent on this issue.
- Connective tissue disorders. Current research does not support a link between silicone breast implants and connective tissue disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia) but it does not completely address rare forms of these forms of disease.
- Interference with breastfeeding. Although no study has shown a difference in the quality of breast milk from women with breast implants, women with implants are less likely to successfully breast feed an infant.
- Reproductive issues. Researchers say current evidence is not sufficient to rule out a rare or subtle effect on children of women with silicone implants. Isolated cases of immune disorders in children have been reported, but the findings have not been confirmed.
- Suicide risk. Some studies have noted a slightly higher suicide risk among breast implant recipients. But overall, research has shown that breast implant patients are healthier than their peers and do not have higher death rates compared with other women.
In addition, Zuckerman says she's also concerned about the results of the Inamed study that showed women's overall general and mental health worsened two years after getting silicone breast implants.