Women say breast implants are making them sick, we’re On Your Side with what you need to know

Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 1:34 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Women across the country say their breast implants are making them sick. The unofficial diagnosis: breast implant illness. It’s a controversial topic in medicine; some doctors don’t believe it’s real but hundreds of thousands of women say otherwise.

Breast implant illness can occur with women who have both saline and silicone implants. There’s more than 500 symptoms, but the most common are fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches and joint pain.

Birmingham women Marnie Clark and Jordan Olmos know those symptoms well. They’ve never met, but their stories are the same.

While some women experience physical symptoms like swelling and rashes, Olmos lived with significant physical pain, fatigue and brain fog.

“I hit a wall, was so sick,” Olmos explained. “I couldn’t drive for eight months because I just had severe brain fog, horrible brain fog. It got so bad that at night I would cry to my husband wondering what is wrong with me, I didn’t even feel human.”

Clark also experienced physical symptoms, which ultimately affected her mobility. Over time she couldn’t keep up with the active live she’d lived for years playing tennis and long distance running.

“I was very, very tired with a lot of fatigue, it was almost like I had a mild case of the flu, that would be what I would feel like most of the time,” added Clark.

Both women are mothers, physically active and both had saline implants for more than fifteen years before they started having significant symptoms.

“It was such a gradual decline,” explained Clark. “I was like, okay, I can’t play tennis, I’m always hurting, I feel like I have significant arthritis. I just kept hurting myself and felt really, really tired.”

Clark buckled down, increasing strength training to get her stamina up.

“You just keep trying over and over and it’s like and nothing was working.”

Clark even scheduled a shoulder surgery to help heal the pain, even though surgeons weren’t sure it would help.

“The physical therapist even said working on me, and this felt like confirmation, she said your body feels like someone who has an autoimmune disease like fibromyalgia, something is wrong,” Clark recalled.

Olmos struggled to take care of her young family.

“I told my husband, I don’t feel like I’m absorbing our children’s childhoods,” Olmos remembered. “Their childhoods were slipping away and I didn’t feel like I was a part of it, even though I was there taking care of them.”

The physical pain and brain fog were so taxing, Olmos’s mental health suffered.

“It got bad to the point that if it wasn’t for my husband and my kids, my parents, and my sister, I wouldn’t be here for sure, it just wasn’t a way to live. It was scary,” Olmos tearfully stated. “Not ever wanting to be suicidal or thinking that I was a suicidal person, but it robs you of everything.”

And like many women, they went from doctor to doctor without a diagnosis.

“No matter what, the rheumatologist was negative, all your tests are negative, you’re fine, you’re fine, and I’m just barely making the through the day,” stated Clark. “I really felt like I had an autoimmune issue and was sure I was going to get a positive diagnosis.”

Olmos spun her wheels with traditional medical doctors, the only solution was a prescription for Zoloft.

“[I saw] several doctors, specialists, went to several hospitals, had blood taken and they’re all like, Oh, you look really healthy - maybe drink more water,” said Olmos. “I’m like how could that be, not once did anybody ever suggest it could be [breast implant illness].”

Some experts suggest their symptoms were triggered by the body’s response to the implants. A foreign object in the body can prompt an autoimmune response and inflammation. Some of the symptoms of breast implant illness correlate with those of autoimmune diseases.

It’s something Dr. Scot Glasberg, President-Elect of the Plastic Surgery Foundation and longtime plastic surgeon, is closely monitoring.

“For many years I’ve probably seen patients with it,” Glasberg said of incidents of breast implant illness. “It’s probably only in the last maybe five to seven years that I’ve gotten a better idea and understanding of what it was.”

Due to the lack of formal testing to confirm breast implant illness, Glasberg calls it a diagnosis of exclusion.

“I think it’s important to work up the symptoms and then if you don’t find anything, be very mindful and aware of the fact that it could be leading to the patient’s breast implants,” Glasberg explained.

He emphasizes working up patients and testing their symptoms, noting he ordered a head CT for a patient who came in with brain fog and headaches who ended up having a brain tumor.

“That was a much more serious disease that needed to be treated and hopefully it saved her life.”

Glasberg admits it’s a controversial topic for some plastic surgeons due to the lack of data, studies and testing.

“It’s much easier for us as physicians if you can test for it, if there’s a marker for it, if there’s a clear clinical presentation,” stated Glasberg, noting he’s not always been open to the idea. “If you had told ten or eleven years ago that I would be talking to you the way I am now, I would say you’re crazy, I don’t believe it. I began to believe it because I saw it more and more.”

Since breast implant illness isn’t a formal medical diagnosis it can take months or years before women make the connection between their symptoms and implants and get to a surgeon like Glasberg.

For Clark, this step was nothing short of divine intervention. She wrote out her symptoms in a prayer journal and prayed for healing.

“I think it’s Mark 5 there’s a story of how Jesus healed a woman who was sick for twelve years and no matter what she did, she wasn’t getting better; and I said, Jesus, I need your help.”

Two hours later she went to her regular personal training session and her trainer asked if she’d ever heard of breast implant illness propelling her journey to find an explant surgeon.

The trainer told Clark about a Facebook Group for breast implant illness, the place where most women learn about the illness and realize what’s been going on with their bodies.

Olmos ran across the same page on social media and was stunned.

“I came across hundreds of women telling almost my same story for being so sick,” said Olmos. “It was extreme fatigue, brain fog, nausea pains all over your body and doctors not knowing what it was. I was like, ‘oh my God, that’s me’.”

Olmos and Clark immediately started searching for a surgeon. That’s when Clark learned her implants were displaced, the cause of that significant shoulder pain.

“It’s like glue, it was almost hunching me over because there was so much pulling,” Clark explained. “[The doctor] said that my anatomy made it so that the right side of my body was being affected more than the left and I just couldn’t believe it.”

The good news, Glasberg says there’s a good body of evidence that patients with these symptoms often get better after an explant surgery.

“Some of the controversy comes in as how to take them out and that comes to the whole issue of the capsule.

The capsule is tissue the body forms around the implant.

“When the human body sees a foreign body or something foreign, it tends to try to wall it off,” Glasberg explained. “That’s the normal course of any implant.”

Most women like Clark and Olmos want the entire capsule removed. They believe leaving it in will continue causing the inflammatory response, but Glasberg says some studies disagree.

“I’d say the jury is still out,” Glasberg responded.

There’s a handful of surgeons across the country who are explant specialists and they’re in high demand. It can take a year or more to schedule a consultation.

Doctor Amy DeRosa, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon uses social media to educate women, showing the capsule after surgeries including those with ruptured silicone implants. DeRosa performs hundreds of explants a year for people across the country and from other countries.

“It can be difficult,” Glasberg said of removing the capsule. “More times than not that capsule comes out pretty easily. It’s those instances where it doesn’t come out easily from that chest wall that I think are the ones patients need to be mindful of.”

Olmos explanted ten months ago and feels at least 75% better.

“Right after the surgery, I could breathe better, I didn’t have the pain in my chest, neck and shoulder pain,” stated Olmos. “I’ve gotten my life back, some days are not as great but nowhere near how I felt a year ago, praise God.”

Clark’s explant surgery was two months ago and she can move her shoulder again.

“I felt like I was walking around half dead - now I feel completely different, I feel alive, I feel energy that I haven’t had in who knows how long,” Clark responded.

For both, the crippling brain fog has mostly lifted.

“I would never have been able to do what we’re doing before now, because I would have been so anxious that I would not be able to think of basic words,” Clark said during interview. “I want to tell everybody because I don’t want anybody to suffer needlessly, there’s a very hard and fast cure for this illness.”

Glasberg says he’s not surprised.

“Have I seen patients make turnarounds, absolutely,” he remarked. “Can I pinpoint, as a physician and as a scientist why women get better, I can’t.”

Olmos wants women to understand everyone doesn’t feel better immediately after surgery, some women take longer to recover than others. Those who have gone through explant surgery suspect it’s the body’s way of detoxing from the implants.

“I just want women to know that you’re not alone,” she explained. “You feel very alone, especially when doctors are telling you that you’re fine.”

This doesn’t impact everyone with implants. In fact, surgeons are performing more breast augmentations with implants now more than ever. The difference, the FDA now has a black box warning on implants and informed consent, requiring doctors to explain the side effects to patients before the surgery.

Glasberg says that so far, this hasn’t stopped his patients from moving forward.

The patient decision checklist I think has been a pretty positive experience, he said. “I haven’t seen many look at that and say I’m not having the surgery, it’s created a nice dialogue between the patient and the doctor.”

Women who believe they may have breast implant illness can find more resources on this website and the corresponding Facebook page which now has nearly 200,000 members.

Search here to determine if your doctor is a board certified in plastic surgery.

Clark also hosted a podcast about her journey with breast implant illness. You can listen here.

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