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What Should I Do If My Breast Tissue Expander Breaks Or Leaks?

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Updated June 23, 2014

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

Tissue Expander, Round with Internal Port

Tissue Expander, Round with Internal Port

Art © Pam Stephan
Question: What Should I Do If My Breast Tissue Expander Breaks Or Leaks?
Breast tissue expanders are implantable, balloon-like devices used in breast reconstruction surgery. A tissue expander is used to stretch breast skin and chest wall muscles in order to create a pocket for a permanent breast implant.

As with all types of surgical devices, tissue expanders come with some risk, the most common being ruptures or leaks. Don't panic if you think that your tissue expander has broken or sprung a leak –- there's a good solution -– but do consult your surgeon if you think there's a problem. Let's look at the causes, symptoms, and solutions for a broken or ruptured breast tissue expander.

Answer: A broken breast tissue expander must be replaced. Here's why:

Causes Of Breast Tissue Expander Ruptures

Breast tissue expanders are designed to be filled with saline solution, and to hold that saline for as long as you need it, to make room for a permanent breast implant. A leak or a rupture interrupts the process of tissue expansion, so it must be taken care of properly. Some of the causes of tissue expander rupture are:

  • Puncture during surgery - this could be due to implant surgery or related breast surgery
  • Compression during a mammogram - if a technician applies too much pressure, an expander may pop and drain
  • Injury to the area - accidents happen in sports, other physical activities, or crowded situations
  • During expansion treatment - a needle puncture, improper filling technique, or over-filling of saline solution
  • Valve leak - even thought expanders are carefully inspected, some may have an unsealed or damaged valve that could leak

Symptoms And Diagnosis Of Breast Tissue Expander Ruptures

Some patients have other problems with their expanders -- infection may develop, the device may slip out of position, capsular contracture can occur, or pain can become bothersome. So if you think your expander has ruptured or leaked, you'll need to get it professionally checked out. One good reason to do this is that insurance may not cover expander replacement unless a rupture can be medically documented.

The symptoms of a rupture or leak in a tissue expander could include gradual or sudden decrease in size or a change in shape of the implant area. Your surgeon should examine the area and will most likely refer you for an imaging study, such as a breast MRI, a mammogram, or an ultrasound.

A Broken Tissue Expander Must Be Replaced

After checking your breast tissue expander and having confirmation of a break or leak with medical imaging, it's time to take action. The saline that leaks out won't harm you, but the tissue expander can become infected. Tissue expanders can't be repaired within your body, and it isn't safe to remove, repair, and reinsert an old expander. These devices are meant for one-time use, not for re-use. A broken or leaky tissue expander must be surgically removed and replaced. If your body is ready for the permanent breast implant, then it can become the replacement for the failed tissue expander.

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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