Do I need a scan to check my breast implants?
Patients often come to me to ask ‘do I need a scan to check my breast implants?’.
There are different types of scans that can be done to check on the breast:
This is an x-ray that looks at the density of the tissues and is mainly used for looking at lumps in the breast.
It is not very good at looking for problems with breast implants.
*note: a lot of patients worry about having a mammogram if they have got breast implants in, but there is no need for concern because it is routine to use implants in patients with breast cancer who need regular mammograms. You just need to let the xray doctors know that you have implants in so that they can adjust the way that they do the mammogram.
Ultrasound Scan (USS)
This involves using a handheld probe with gel on the skin to look at the integrity of the implant.
It is the same scan that is used when you are pregnant to get a picture of your baby.
It is often the first test for looking for rupture of breast implants.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
This is a bit more involved than an ultrasound scan.
You lie on a table and a large doughnut passes around you. The doughnut contains magnets so you must tell the operator if you have any metalwork inside your body.
An MRI scan is more sensitive and specific than an ultrasound scan. This means that it is more likely to be able to tell if the implant is intact.
Intracapsular Rupture Of Breast Implants
All implants are surrounded by scar tissue, known as a capsule and if the implant ruptures but the capsule stays intact, all of the gel will be held within the capsule. This is known as an intracapsular rupture and this can happen without you being aware of it, in which case it is known as a ‘silent rupture’.
The cause of this is a constant friction of the implant shell, perhaps because of a fold or knuckle in the implant that might be made worse by some degree of capsular contracture. Over time there can be a thinning of the silicone shell in areas of wear and this can lead to a gradual break or tear.
It is for this reason that I personally do not advocate routine scanning of patients who have breast implants in.
Scans have a cost, both financially and in terms of your health by exposure to radiation (for X-rays and CT scans) and so should only be performed if they are going to change how you are treated.
While they are very accurate in predicting whether your implant is ruptured or not, no scan is 100% reliable. This means that there is a small chance that the scan could say that your implant was ruptured, yet it might be intact and the scan might say that it is intact and it may be ruptured.
I have seen cases where the scan has been wrong both ways.
My practice is to offer all of my patients a yearly review where they can come back to the clinic for a check-up to see if there are any concerns or questions about your implants.
I would only offer a scan if there was a change in the size or shape of your breast that could indicate a problem with the implants.
If there was a problem with capsular contracture, then this is diagnosed clinically, not with a scan.
We make a decision to perform a capsulectomy and replacement of implants based on how bad the capsular contracture looks and feels, not on the basis of any scan.
Extracapsular Rupture Of Breast Implants
So far I have talked about a ‘silent rupture’ of breast implants, which is usually confined to the within the fibrous capsule around the implants (intracapsular rupture) and you normally do not notice when it happens.
This is different to an extracapsular rupture which is where the silicone shell of the implant ruptures as well as the fibrous capsule around the implant.
This is a different situation to an intracapsular rupture and this is the sort of thing that most people will imagine when thinking about rupture of breast implants.
It takes a significant amount of trauma to forcefully rupture the implant shell and in these circumstances, the capsule may also rupture resulting in a change in the shape of the breast and the presence of free silicone within the breast tissue.
Silicone within the breast tissue can cause lumps and may travel to the lymph nodes in the armpit causing lumps here.
This is something that we saw quite a lot of during the PIP scandal where a French manufacturer was producing poor quality implants with a weak shell and a high rupture rate. These implants were filled with non-medical grade silicone which was irritant to the breast tissue and removal of these breast implants was recommended by the Plastic Surgery Associations.
The situation today is not as desperate as this because modern day implants have a thick shell (we only use premium breast implants which have a double shell). Also, the gel in implants these days is firmer than it was in the past, this is known as ‘cohesive gel’ and we call the implants ‘form stable’ which means the silicone does not tend to leak like a liquid if the shell ruptures.
It does mean that modern day implants feel firmer than older implants, but they are safer in situations of rupture.
The silicone gel is medical grade and not so irritating to the breast tissue, but nevertheless, if there is an extracapsular rupture with free silicone in the breast, your implants should be changed.
An extracapsular rupture is normally quite obvious. There will have been some significant trauma, like a road traffic accident with a seat-belt over the implant, and there will have been a change in the shape of the breast.
In these circumstances, a scan would be indicated.
In fact, in any situation where there has been a change in the size or shape of your breast, or if you have noticed a lump, then a scan may we’ll be required to make sure that all is well.
As well as a routine annual appointment, all of our patients have open access to the clinic and can make an appointment to come and see us at any time.
If you have noticed changes in your breast, then you need to get checked out.
This means that you need to see your surgeon, or your GP. If you have breast implants in, then your surgeon will be able to get an idea by examining you whether you have a problem related to your implants or your breast.
If the problem is related to your breast and your breast tissue, then your surgeon may refer you to your GP to see whether you needed any specialist investigation or referral.
If it is felt that your problem is related to your implant, then a scan can help to delineate this, not only looking to see if the implants are intact but also looking for any suspicious lumps or swelling that could signify something more sinister.
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