Last revised: January 10, 2012.
A breast implant is a technique used in cosmetic surgery to increase the size of one's breasts or to reconstruct the breast (for example, after a mastectomy). There are three types of breast implants:
Saline-filled which have an external silicone shell and are filled with sterile saline liquid. These implants are currently the only ones available in the United States.
Silicone gel-filled which have an external silicone shell and are filled with silicone gel. They are not currently available for implant in the United States, but future regulation may change this. In the 60 countries outside the United States where silicone implants remain available, they are used in approximately 90% of implant operations.
String implant, a third, much less common type of implant. This implant uses a polypropylene material as an implant. String implants are unique in that they cause the breast to perpetually expand after surgery, and are preferred by those women who choose to have the largest breasts possible. They are not currently available for implant in the United States, but future regulation may change this.
Breast implants have been used at least since 1865 to augment the size of women's breasts. The earliest known implant occurred in Germany in which fat from a benign tumor was removed from a woman's back and implanted in her breast. In following years the medical community experimented with implants of various materials, most commonly paraffin. The first use of silicone as breast-implant material may have been by Japanese prostitutes in the period immediately following World War II.
Risks and controversy
In the United States, implants from silicone gel were banned by the Food and Drug Administration because of growing concerns about the safety of such implants. More than one million women had availed themselves of the implants at the time of the ban, and the subsequent litigation led manufacturers to agree to a settlement of USD$4.25 billion. The degree of risk associated with silicone-gel breast implants is still a matter of debate within the scientific community.
Improperly performed breast implants
The health hazards of breast implants have been debated greatly in recent years. Some people believe that breast implants cause such illnesses as autoimmune disease, although both the AMA and FDA have found there to be no evidence of this. However, documented problems with breast implants include rupture, deflation, infection, scarring and hardening of the implants.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, breast augmentation is the most commonly performed cosmetic surgical procedure on women in the United States. In 2002, 236,888 women in the U.S. underwent breast augmentation. According to the National Institute for Women, one in four silicone implant recipients must undergo surgery, within 5 years, to correct implant problems.
New procedures are being examined. A new procedure currently being examined uses a titanium mesh as the support for silicone breast implants to keep them from shifting downwards. This helps treat and prevent sagging of the breasts that may complicate the use of some implants.
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