Breast implants have a long history in the United States being first used in the 1960’s. Since that time, improvements in the manufacturing process and introduction of different implant styles and types has resulted in more options for women who wish to have breast reconstruction or breast augmentation.

The newest generation of implants offer a more natural feel and a range of shapes to optimize the final results. However, as most other products, including medical devices, breast implants should not be considered a product that lasts a lifetime. Rather, it is better to expect that at some point, the implants may need to be replaced, or some other procedure may need to be done. Just like artificial hip and knee joints, heart valves and implanted pacemakers which wear out, breast implants also will break eventually. However, unlike these other medical devices which are typically used for older people who may not outlive the artificial joint or pacemaker, breast implants are commonly placed in younger women who will live much longer than the “lifetime” of an implant.

So when should a breast implant be replaced?

One reason to replace an implant is if the outer shell breaks. If the implant is saline-filled, then the implant will deflate, the saline (salt water) will be absorbed by the body and eliminated just like any other fluid. The breast will get smaller over a few days and there is no pain or discomfort with the process. The implant can be removed and a new one placed, frequently under a local anesthetic. For most U.S. made saline implants, a women can expect the implant to last at least 10 years since the deflation rate at 10 years is 5 to 10%. Since deflation of a saline-filled implant is easy to detect (the breast gets smaller), there is no reason do any tests to see if the implant is broken.

Silicone gel-filled breast implants on the other hand do not result in a smaller breast when they break. The silicone gel is usually contained in a capsule the body already formed around the implant so a broken implant may go undetected. However, if a women feels any changes in her breasts such as pain, discomfort or a new lump, it needs to be evaluated since it may mean an implant has broken. The F.D.A. recommends that MRIs be done to evaluate if an implant is broken.

  • Copyright: Karol A. Gutowski, M.D., Chicago, IL, 2011