The breasts develop due to an increase in estrogen during puberty. During the menstrual cycle, various hormones cause changes in breast tissue that can lead to pain or discomfort in some women. While breasts do not typically hurt, occasional breast pain is not uncommon.
Breast pain, also called mastalgia, is a common condition among women. According to California Pacific Medical Center, breast pain affects 50 to 70 percent of women (CPMC). The pain is usually categorized as either cyclical or noncyclical.
Cyclical pain is associated with your menstrual cycle, whereas noncyclical pain is not. Pain linked with the menstrual cycle tends to lessen during or after your period.
Noncyclical pain can have many causes, including injury to the breast. Sometimes noncyclical pain can come from surrounding muscles or tissues rather than the breast itself. Noncyclical pain is much less common than cyclical pain, and the causes can be harder to ascertain.
Mastalgia can vary in intensity, from a sharp pain to a mild tingling. Some women may experience breast tenderness, or their breasts may feel fuller than usual.
Breast pain can be caused by a variety of factors. Lumpy breasts due to fibrocystic breast tissue can cause breast soreness and pain. Hormone fluctuations can also cause pain or discomfort. Emotional stress can affect hormones, no matter where you are in your cycle.
Aside from the hormones estrogen and progesterone, abnormal prolactin levels may play a role in breast pain. Because one breast typically hurts more than the other does, hormones are not the main cause of pain, but they may interact with other variables to cause discomfort.
To determine whether your breast pain is linked to your menstrual cycle, keep a log of your periods and note when you experience pain throughout the month. After a cycle or two, a pattern may become clear.
Treatment will vary depending on whether your breast pain is cyclical or noncyclical. Before treating you, your doctor will consider your age, medical history, and the severity of your pain.
Treatment for cyclical pain may include:
- dietary changes
- reduction in caffeine consumption
- reduction in sodium intake
- vitamin E and calcium supplements
- oral contraceptives
- thyroid hormone supplements
- estrogen blockers, such as tamoxifen
- wearing a supportive bra 24 hours a day when pain is at its worst
To determine the right treatment for noncyclical breast pain, your doctor will perform a physical examination and may order a mammogram (an X-ray of the breasts). If you have cystic breasts, he or she might do a needle biopsy (a thin needle is inserted into the cyst to remove a small sample of tissue for testing). Pain medications and hot compresses may be recommended.
Breast pain is not usually linked to breast cancer. Having breast pain or fibrocystic breasts does not mean you are at higher risk of developing cancer. However, lumpy tissue may make it harder to see tumors on a mammogram.
If you have breast pain that is localized in only one area and that is consistent through the month with no fluctuations in pain level, call your doctor. He or she can do a clinical breast exam and decide whether to explore it further with a mammogram or needle biopsy.