Introduction 

Breast implant surgery – also called breast augmentation or enlargement – is the most common type of cosmetic surgery carried out in the UK.

It's estimated more than 30,000 such procedures are carried out in the UK every year. Most of these are carried out privately, with fewer than 4,500 operations to fit breast implants carried out on the NHS during 2012-13.

Why are breast implants used?

Breast implants can be used for two purposes:

  • reconstructive – to reconstruct the breast mound after a mastectomy (the surgical removal of the breast, often used to treat breast cancer)
  • cosmetic – to enhance the size and shape of the breast

Generally, breast implants used for purely cosmetic reasons are not available on the NHS and need to be paid for privately.

In the UK, the average cost of private breast implant surgery is around £3,500-5,000, but you will also have to take into consideration the cost of any consultations or follow-up care that may be needed.

Read more about why breast implants are used.

Deciding to have breast implants

The decision to have breast implants should be an informed one that takes into account the potential health risks and financial costs.

If you are considering having breast implants, it's a good idea to speak to your GP and a cosmetic surgeon beforehand about why you want them, your expectations of surgery, the procedure itself, and the potential risks.

Take your time to find out as much as you can beforehand, and don't feel rushed or pressured into making a decision.

Read more about things to consider before having breast implants.

Types of breast implants

Breast implants are artificial (prosthetic) implants. In the UK, two types of breast implants are commonly used:

  • silicone gel implants – available as a liquid, a gel, or a solid form similar to plastic
  • saline (sterile salt water) implants

Each type has associated advantages and disadvantages, although most people choose to use implants filled with silicone. 

Breast implants generally have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, after which they may need to be replaced.

Read more about the different types of breast implants available.

Breast implant surgery

Breast implant surgery is usually carried out under general anaesthetic, and takes between 60 and 90 minutes.

During the operation, a cut (incision) will be made in the skin next to the treated breast(s). Your surgeon will discuss with you the location of the incisions beforehand so you're aware of where the scars will be.  

After the incision, the implant is positioned between your breast tissue and chest muscle, or behind your chest muscle. Once the implants are in place, the incision is stitched and covered with a dressing.

You'll usually be able to go home the same day you have the operation, or you may need to stay in hospital overnight. When you return home, you'll need to take things easy at first, before gradually returning to most of your normal activities within the next four to six weeks.

You may be worried your breasts look unnatural at first, but this is normal and in most cases temporary. Your breasts will usually start to look and feel better within a few months.

Read more about what happens during breast implant surgery and recovering from breast implant surgery.

Possible complications

If you are contemplating having breast implants, you should make sure you are aware of the potential risks.

Some of the problems that can occur as a result of having breast implants fitted include:

  • infection or bleeding after surgery
  • scarring
  • the shrinkage of scar tissue around the implant (capsular contracture)
  • the implant splitting (rupturing)
  • the implant becoming creased or folded
  • temporary or permanent changes to nipple sensation

In some cases, further surgery may be needed to treat problems that develop.

Read more about the risks of breast implants.

Worries over PIP implants

French-made PIP implants were banned in 2010 after it was revealed they contained industrial silicone rather than medical-grade fillers and that they are far more likely to rupture (split).

About 47,000 women in the UK are believed to have had the implants, with the majority of operations performed for cosmetic reasons through private clinics.

The NHS will remove PIP implants without charge, whether they were fitted on the NHS or privately. Normally, the NHS won't replace PIP implants with another brand unless they were originally fitted on the NHS.

Read more about PIP breast implants.

Is cosmetic surgery right for you?

Ten questions to ask yourself if you're considering cosmetic surgery

Page last reviewed: 09/07/2014

Next review due: 09/07/2016