Breast massage is a tool you can use for many purposes, from identifying breast cancer and easing sore muscles to improving your breastfeeding experience. Even just 15 minutes of massage may be enough to reap the benefits.
You can perform breast massage on yourself. There are very few risks involved, so you can do it as often as you like. Here’s more about why you may want to massage your breasts, how to do it, and when you may want to see your doctor.
Why do women massage their breasts?
1. Lactating women
There’s a growing amount of research suggesting that breast massage may have many benefits for lactating women.
For example, in one study, a group of new breastfeeding mothers were given two 30-minute breast massages in the 10 days after giving birth. Compared to the control group who didn’t receive the massage, these mothers experienced less breast pain while feeding. Not only that, but their babies also suckled more at the breast, and the milk itself contained less sodium.
In another study, researchers found that breast massage greatly increased the quality of breast milk when performed in the first year after delivery. The parts of the milk that improved with massage included the:
- casein concentration
- gross energy
The most benefits were seen between the first day and 11 months postpartum. The only property of the milk that wasn’t changed in either the early or late lactation period was the lactose content.
Massage may also help improve the flow of milk. An older study from 1994 suggests that the combination of suckling and massage works to both empty the milk ducts and encourage the production of more milk. Massage may also help prevent and treat issues like engorgement, plugged milk ducts, or mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue.
2. Early identification of breast cancer
Breast self-exams and massage are ways to identify breast cancer at its earliest stages. According to a 2011 report, some 25 percent of women end up detecting their breast cancer through self-exam. Another 18 percent discover cancer by accident.
Detecting cancer in the early stages may improve your outcome, so it’s a good idea to make it part of your regular routine.
3. Improved breast appearance
Some people try breast massage as a way to improve the appearance of saggy breasts. The belief is that you may increase blood flow to breast tissue through massage. Others use specific oils, like olive oil, in an attempt to help improve skin firmness and elasticity.
Most evidence of this is anecdotal. But in one study, researchers discovered that striae gravidarum — more commonly referred to as stretch marks — may be prevented by massaging skin with oil. As part of the study, pregnant women were asked to either apply bitter almond oil to their bodies without massage, or to massage their bodies for 15 minutes a day using the almond oil.
At the end of the study, the women who used the oil and massage together had fewer stretch marks. The almond oil on its own didn’t provide much benefit.
4. Lymphatic system
Your breast tissue extends all the way into the area under your armpit. There are many lymph nodes in this part of the body, and massaging them may help stimulate your lymphatic system.
Your lymphatic system is responsible for helping your body flush out toxins. If you’ve had surgery on your lymph nodes, you may experience a buildup of waste fluids called lymphedema. You may also hear this type of breast massage referred to as manual lymph drainage.
According to a recent review, more than 1 in 5 people with breast cancer develop lymphedema. Symptoms include swelling in the arm, breast, or chest. Usually, it results from surgery or radiation. Standard treatment often involves using compression to relieve the swelling.
A 2004 study examined the combination of bandaging and massage to treat breast-related lymphedema. Researchers found that adding massage showed more significant improvement than just bandaging.
Even if you don’t have lymphedema, breast massage may help rid your body of toxins trapped in the lymphatic system.
5. Sore muscles
If you’re feeling sore, breast massage can also help ease the tension in your chest muscles. These muscles are called your pectorals. Perhaps you participate in activities, exercises, or sports that strain these muscles.
The pectorals are shaped like triangles and rest underneath your breasts. If you develop tension in your back, you may compensate by tensing your chest muscles as well.
Massage to the chest can bring on more lasting relaxation than massaging the back alone. In fact, if you have only your back massaged, your brain will still sense tension in your chest when your session is complete. As a result, the brain may send tension back to your back to rebalance the forces in the two areas of your body.
How to perform breast massage
The massage method you use may differ depending on the benefits you’re looking to receive.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to massage your breasts for lactation. Massage may be used with or without hand expression. Hand expression is the use of your hand to remove breast milk, rather than through a pump or breastfeeding.
Follow these steps:
- Focus on one breast at a time. Place four fingers of one hand on the top of the breast and four fingers of the other hand on the bottom. Massage in a circular pattern. This may feel best if your hands are warm.
- Move your attention to the sides of your breasts, continuing in a circular pattern. You may even want to make fists with your hands and gently roll or knead your breast.
- Try using your fingertips to tap and massage all over your breasts as well.
- If you do wish to hand express, position your index finger and thumb around your nipple. Bring your fingers together while gently applying pressure to the nipple itself, expressing (removing) the breast milk. Adjust your position as needed. Squeeze rhythmically, at the rate of a heartbeat.
- Hand expression before and after pumping may also help you empty your breasts.
For cancer detection
If you’re checking your breasts for signs of cancer, it’s important to remember that your breast actually extends under your armpit. Don’t forget to check the whole breast, including your nipple, areola, and this extending area. While you’re at it, tell your partner to let you know of any lumps or bumps they feel as well.
Follow these steps:
- Stand in front of a mirror and do a visual check of your breasts. Look for any size differences, color changes, or shape differences. Place your hands at your sides, then on your hips, and then above your head to see from different angles.
- While still looking in the mirror, place one hand behind your head and place three fingers on your breast. Move your fingers in small circles over your breast tissue. Apply light, medium, and hard pressure as your walk your fingers to cover all areas.
- Move your fingers to the area under your armpit, and continue with small circles as you walk your fingers along.
- Repeat the massage on the other breast.
- Finish your massage by squeezing each nipple to look for any discharge or pain. If you experience either one of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.
For breast appearance
Again, there are few formal studies to suggest that breast massage changes the breasts’ appearance. Still, there’s evidence that massaging the breasts with oil may help prevent stretch marks, at least in pregnant women. It may be beneficial in other ways as well.
Researchers suggest starting massage with almond oil early in pregnancy for 15 minutes each day. Only 20 percent of the women who followed this regimen developed stretch marks. In the control group, 41 percent of women had stretch marks, so this method reduced the incidence by half.
For lymph drainage
Lymph drainage massage starts with the axillary area under your arms. This is where you may actually be able to feel your lymph nodes under the skin. Continue the massage by moving upward in a clockwise direction on the right breast and counterclockwise on the left breast. This mimics the direction of the lymphatic system.
A practitioner may use both hands to gently apply pressure in light strokes the entire way around the breast and underarm. After the circle is complete, your practitioner may pump the breast inward several times using both hands.
You may also try this type of massage on your own. You may even feel the nodes draining under your touch. If you’ve had recent surgeries or other issues, it may be best to leave this type of massage to the professionals.
For muscle tension
Massage of the breasts and chest muscles is similar, but slightly different. With breast massage, the nipple is often involved. This isn’t the case with massage of the pectorals.
When dealing with the chest muscles, a massage therapist may focus more on the three areas where these muscles attach to the body. While you may be able to relieve tension yourself, a licensed massage therapist might better manipulate your muscles for the most relief.
If you feel uncomfortable having this area massaged by a stranger, that’s understandable. A professional should first inform you if they plan to massage your chest, and then ask for your consent. Breast massage isn’t a normal part of professional massage.
For people with medical conditions who need help with lymphatic damage, tell your doctor about your plans to get breast massage.
Are there any risks?
There aren’t many risks associated with massaging your breasts. If you’ve had breast cancer or surgery on your breasts, you may want to be careful around any lumps, scars, or areas that have recently received radiation. In these cases, it may be best to seek breast massage from a licensed massage therapist.
If you suspect you may have mastitis, make an appointment with your doctor. Massage can help, but you may also need medications to clear up the infection. Most cases of mastitis develop in the first 6 to 12 weeks after giving birth. Other symptoms might include fever, pain, swelling, and chills.
Breast massage may ease a range of conditions, from plugged milk ducts to sore muscles. It may even save your life. It’s generally safe to try breast massage on your own.
If you’re dealing with specific medical issues, though, it may be a better idea to consult with a professional for regular care. And if you notice any new lumps or other changes in your breasts, let your doctor know as soon as possible to rule out cancer.