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Understand and Manage Your Tissue Expander Pain

Use Some Self-Help Tips Or Get Your Doctor's Assistance

By

Updated June 06, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Breast Implants - Expansion

Breast Implants - Expansion

Illustration © Pam Stephan

The most common type of breast reconstruction is done with tissue expanders and breast implants. Even though this type of breast reconstruction can create good results, when you have tissue expanders, they may temporarily cause pain. There are many ways to cope with tissue expander pain - some of which you can do for yourself, and some of which require a doctor's help. Here's how to deal with tissue expander pain.

Causes of Tissue Expander Pain

Tissue expanders are temporary devices implanted within chest muscles after your mastectomy to make room for a permanent breast implant. Tissue expanders can feel very hard because their shells are thicker and less flexible than implant shells. The muscle that is being stretched is the source of the pain - breast skin and nerves are almost numb after a mastectomy. Capsular contracture, or scar tissue that forms around the expander, may also become a source of pain and stiffness. Pain from tissue expanders will feel similar to muscle spasms, cramps, or muscular tightness. If you are also having radiation treatments, some radiation fibrosis may cause pain around your tissue expanders.

Self Help For Tissue Expander Pain

Try some of these tips to reduce the temporary pain of a tissue expander after a recent saline fill:

  • Chill It - apply a cold gel pack on the painful area for about 20 minutes, keeping a light cloth or towel against your skin.
  • Tune Out - use relaxation tapes and other distractions such as music or guided imagery to get your mind off the pain.
  • Move Around - do some slow and gentle arm exercises to stretch those chest muscles, increasing your range of motion little by little.
  • Do Less - ask for smaller fills of saline during expansion treatments or more time between fills.

Professional Help For Tissue Expander Pain

There are some things your doctor can do to help relieve your pain. Your job is to speak up, describe your pain or discomfort and ask for a prescription or other assistance.

  • Pop Pills - take an ibuprofen before each appointment and then take a pain pill after a saline fill.
  • Ask For It - ask for a prescription for anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or prescription-strength naproxen. COX 2 inhibitors such as Celebrex or Bextra would also be a good choice. Use these drugs exactly as prescribed.
  • Calm The Pain - Vicodin, muscle relaxants, or a lidocaine skin patch may be used to moderate tissue expander pain.
  • Back Out - ask your plastic surgeon for the temporary removal of some saline solution, to give you some relief.

Most women report having less pain with their breast implants than with tissue expanders. After your exchange surgery, any post-op pain you have should diminish fairly quickly. If it does not, see your surgeon or doctor for help. Implants are typically smaller, more flexible, and easier to tolerate than tissue expanders. Once your skin and muscle settles over your permanent breast implants, your appearance and comfort should improve.

Sources:

Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy. After breast reconstruction surgery. PDF Document. American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 9/1/2009.

Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy. Types of breast reconstruction: Implant procedures. American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 09/01/2009.

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