How Safe Are Breast Implants, Really?

Even though millions of women undergo breast implant surgery, the answer has always been, and remains, complicated

Rebecca Nelson
Elemental
Published in
9 min readSep 3, 2019

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Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

WWhen Jamee Cook got breast implants at 21, she hoped to feel more confident about her body. Instead, the implants nearly ruined her life.

Just three years after her surgery, Cook, who is now 42, started having a slew of medical problems: fatigue, fevers, sinus infections, memory problems, and trouble concentrating. She felt like she constantly had the flu and could barely muster the energy to take care of her three kids. Because of her health problems, she had to quit her job as a paramedic. Four years ago, she finally saved up enough money to get her implants removed due to the complications and discovered her symptoms subsided. “I felt like I did a turnaround,” she says. She had finally gotten her life back.

Cook is not an outlier among women with breast implants. The safety of breast implants has long been a topic of debate in the medical community. After a safety scare in the 1990s, silicone implants were banned for more than a decade before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed them back on the market in 2006. But a growing body of evidence suggests that these newer breast implants aren’t as safe as this generation of women has been led to believe. The FDA requested in July that the implant manufacturer Allergan recall their textured implants, citing a link to a rare cancer called breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma. And an online movement of thousands of women who say their implants have made them sick is calling more attention to other long-term complications.

Breast implants first came on the market in the U.S. in the 1960s. They are classified as medical devices by the FDA and an estimated 10 million women around the world have them currently. While the vast majority of those women don’t have issues, there’s increasing evidence that implants are associated with serious risks. But the available data on their safety is of poor quality, and doctors, researchers, and patients disagree about what some of the risks actually are — making it all the more difficult for women to determine them before making a decision.

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