Paula Blades, 47, got saline breast implants in 1992. Before her surgery, she was always self-conscious about her small breasts. "I had been teased my whole life," she said in a phone interview.
After having her breast implants redone in 1994, Blades noticed something curious about her body. "I didn't have any sensation in my nipples after [surgery]," she said. "My hormone and thyroid glands bottomed out."
It only got worse from there. "For years I hated sex. It hurt," she said. "My husband and I discussed getting a divorce during that time."
Blades went online to research her symptoms and found dozens of other women with breast implants were experiencing similar issues. Finally, everything became clear when several doctors, including plastic surgeon Dr. Susan Kolb in Atlanta, Georgia, told her the new ailments might be related to her implants.
Blades and Anne Ziegenhorn, 44, are cofounders of The Implant Truth Survivors Committee (aptly abbreviated as TITS), a fledging grassroots organization that recently came together to pressure the FDA to reevaluate the safety of breast implants. Although the surgery is widely considered safe and routine, the FDA's website states: "The longer you have breast implants, the more likely you are to experience local complications and adverse outcomes," including changes in nipple sensation and breast pain.
Yet many women feel they are experiencing a much wider range of long-term side effects related to breast augmentation. Saturday in Texas, a panel of doctors in Dallas will talk about about the slew of curious symptoms patients with breast implants keep having, calling their presentation the "Dallas Conference on Breast Implant Illness." And scores of women with breast implants are flocking online to discuss a smorgasbord of common symptoms that doctors can't seem to explain, including vaginal dryness, fatigue and loss of sex drive.
Many women who get breast implants to improve their confidence and sex appeal have found it actually hurts their sex lives far more than it helps. "I still can't climax," Blades said. "I haven't been able to since I got sick [from breast implants]... Getting breast implants was the worst decision I ever made in my life."
Breast augmentation surgery is more popular today than ever. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the prevalence of cosmetic surgery is steadily rising across the United States. Breast implants are one of the most popular procedures, with more than 305,856 breast augmentations performed in 2015 alone, triple what the ASAPS reported in 1997.
There's little scientific evidence about the negative side effects breast augmentation can cause, partially because many comprehensive implant studies are funded by the manufacturers themselves, like Allergan Inc. and Mentor. These companies have a long track record of losing patients' files and reporting incomplete data. In 2011, the Associated Press reported a Mentor study of 40,000 women with implants failed to follow up with nearly 80% of the patients after only three years.
That's exactly why Blades and Ziegenhorn are collecting testimonies from women across the country. Blades said they routinely hear personal stories from women who complain their breast implants have ruined their sex lives.
One of TITS's new members, 42-year-old Kimberly Newell in Alabama, submitted her story to the group: "For years me and my husband would argue the fact that I was no longer interested in him.... I just had no sex drive," she wrote on Facebook. "At one point we were on the verge of splitting because he just couldn't understand that it wasn't me not being interested but it was my body not producing hormones... I am now six weeks out explanted [breast implant removal surgery] and my drive is definitely coming back."
For Ziegenhorn in Florida, Newell's story must sound eerily familiar. Unlike Blades, Ziegenhorn got silicone implants and her nipples became extremely sensitive after her surgery.
"Even if my shirt just brushed against my nipple I got immediately aroused," Ziegenhorn said in a phone interview. "I'm a sexual and sensual person, but all of a sudden I started getting dry. The hypersensitivity in my nipples didn't fade as I would go through bouts of [vaginal] dryness. Then other times I would lose nipple sensitivity and lose any sex drive. There was no rhyme or reason to it."
There are no statistics proving these symptoms are directly connected to breast implants, due to lack of research into the risks of the procedure. The FDA itself acknowledged the lack of data about potential longterm impacts in a 2011 press release: "No study has been large enough or lasted long enough to completely rule out [breast cancer, reproductive problems, or connective tissue disease] and other rare complications."
Some medical experts are starting to take note of such complaints. Plastic surgeon Dr. Edward Melmed in Dallas specializes in removing breast implants, a procedure often referred to as an "explant." He's performed thousands of explant surgeries and currently averages at around three per week. He believes most of his patients ask for the procedure because their bodies had a negative immune response to the implants.
"I see an enormous amount of women with problems from their breast implants," Melmed said in a phone interview. "The doctors don't believe [the women]. They don't acknowledge, write down or report the problems."
The common symptoms Melmed sees include fatigue, brain fog, joint pain and dryness all over the body, including the mouth, skin and eyes. He said doctors usually attribute the unusual symptoms to psychological problems rather than investigating the ailments.
As was the case with Blades, Ziegenhorn's marriage also suffered as a result of her implants, she claims. The woman who once auditioned for Playboy and worked at Hooters in her youth now found herself self-conscious about her body and repulsed by physical intimacy.
"A lot of times we'd go to have sex and I'd tell him to finish cause I'm not going to get any [pleasure]," Ziegenhorn said. "That was not my personality... super-sensitivity isn't always good. Sometimes it would hurt. Sometimes touching my nipple would sting all the way down to my ankles. I didn't want him to touch me anywhere."
Like Blades, Ziegenhorn also found herself with half a dozen new ailments, including open sores and chronic sinus infections, new conditions that showed her immune system was struggling. After she got the silicone implants removed, it took a year for her libido to return. Now, almost three years later, her health and sex life are back to normal.
Throughout their struggle to figure out the truth about what happened to their bodies, both Ziegenhorn and Blades have faced extensive criticism from their doctors.
"Women are told 'You're crazy,'" Blades said, describing how doctors responded to her low sex drive and fatigue. "People even say 'You deserve what you got.'"
When the activists went public with their stories, they also became a target for sexist backlash. "They hated us because we are women speaking out," Ziegenhorn said.
The lack of available data about the risks associated with the surgery, not to mention the stereotypes associated with women who get breast implants (i.e., that women who get them are shallow and materialistic), make many women feel like they can't speak openly about these medical issues.
"Plastic surgeons assured us that implants were safe," Ziegenhorn said. "I don't feel doctors were honest about the potential risks."