What Causes Sensitive Breasts and How Is It Treated?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on December 7, 2017Written by Corinne O’Keefe Osborn on December 7, 2017

Is this cause for concern?

Although women are more likely to experience sore breasts, this can affect anyone who has breast tissue.

In addition to sensitivity, you may also experience:

  • tenderness
  • aching
  • fullness
  • throbbing

Breast pain can be alarming, but it usually isn’t cause for concern. Breast pain is rarely a symptom of cancer, and there are several reasons why perfectly healthy breasts may start to hurt.

Here’s what may be behind your symptoms and what you can do to find relief.

1. It’s your bra

One of the most common causes of breast pain is an ill-fitting bra. Bras provide support for the heavy, fatty tissue in a woman’s breasts.

A bra that is too big, too old, or too stretched out may not provide the support you need. When your breasts jostle around all day, they can easily get sore. You may also feel sore in your back, neck, and shoulders.

On the flipside, wearing a bra that’s too small — or too tight — can put too much pressure on your breasts and lead to sensitivity.

Think you wear the right size? You could be wrong. One 2008 study found that 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size. Researchers found this to be particularly common among women with larger breasts.

What you can do

If you think your bra may be to blame, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your breasts spilling out over the top of your bra?
  • Does the back strap dig into your skin?
  • Are you wearing your everyday bra on the tightest or loosest buckle?
  • Does your bra ride up in the back?
  • Is there a gap between your breast and the cup?

If you answered yes to any of the above, consider a professional fitting at a department store or lingerie shop. Many women find it difficult to measure themselves at home, and a professional fitting is often much more accurate.

You can also try an online service, like Thirdlove, that lets you test a bra at home before you buy it.

2. It’s a muscle strain

Your pectoral muscles (commonly called pecs) lie directly beneath and around your breasts. When you strain this muscle, the pain can feel like it’s coming from inside your breast. This type of breast pain is usually limited to one breast.

You may also experience:

  • swelling
  • bruising
  • difficulty moving your arm or shoulder

Pectoral muscle strains are common in athletes and weight lifters, but they can easily happen to anyone. Typical household activities like raking, shoveling, or even lifting your baby can lead to a pectoral strain.

What you can do

Most pectoral strains can be treated at home:

  • Treat pain and inflammation with over-the-counter (OTC) medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve).
  • Rest is important for healing. Cool it on the weight lifting and upper body exercises for a few days.
  • Stretching can help, so try doing a yoga or Pilates video at home
  • Heat may help ease the pain and will make stretching more effective. Try an electric heating pad or hot water bottle.

3. It’s a bump or bruises

Have you ever woken up with a bump or bruise on your leg that you don’t remember getting? This can also happen to your chest.

For example, it could be because you carried a heavy cross-body bag or bumped yourself while carrying a sleeping child. Sex is also a common cause of breast injury, whether you bent over something, were grabbed too hard, or otherwise squished and jostled.

What you can do

Minor pains from a bump or bruise will typically fade in a few days.

You can try the following to help ease your symptoms:

  • Take an OTC pain reliever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) treat pain and reduce swelling.
  • Apply ice or heat. Use whichever works to relieve the pain.
  • Change bras. Something soft and supportive — usually without underwire — may be more comfortable.

4. It’s your period

Most female breast pain results from hormonal changes. Doctors call this cyclical breast pain, because it’s directly associated with your menstrual cycle.

Hormones like estrogen and progesterone fluctuate throughout the month, wreaking all sorts of havoc on your body and your brain. Estrogen and progesterone can actually increase the size and number of ducts and milk glands in your breasts. This causes the breasts to swell and retain water.

A few days before your period starts, both breasts can swell and become tender, painful, or even lumpy. You may also feel pain around your breasts, including the upper chest, outer sides of the breasts, the armpit, and the arm.

Breast sensitivity and tenderness should go away as soon as your period ends.

What you can do

Lifestyle changes and home remedies are often enough to help ease your symptoms:

  • Take an OTC pain reliever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) treat pain and reduce swelling.
  • Apply ice or heat. Use whichever works to relieve the pain.
  • Avoid caffeine. It can increase the discomfort.
  • Wear a “period bra.” You probably have period underwear, so complete the set with a larger bra that won’t squish your swollen breasts.
  • Reduce your salt intake. Salt contributes to water retention and swelling in the breasts. The swelling is part of what makes your breasts so sensitive.
  • Practice mindfulness. Stress makes pain feel worse. Make sure you get plenty of sleep and try a relaxation technique, like yoga or meditation.

If home remedies aren’t working, talk to your doctor about hormonal birth control. Birth control stops ovulation, which may reduce your premenstrual symptoms.

5. It’s a sign of pregnancy

When you first get pregnant, your body goes through a lot of hormonal changes. Hormones trigger transformations that prepare your body to sustain a pregnancy.

In the first weeks of pregnancy, you may notice your breasts are swollen and tender. Your nipples might also stick out.

Other early symptoms of pregnancy include:

If your breast pain is severe, talk to your OB-GYN. You should also tell your doctor if you feel a lump, notice skin changes, or experience discharge.

What you can do

Your breasts and your body will undergo a lot of changes while you explore your options for family planning or abortion.

Here’s what you can do to find relief:

  • Apply heat. An electric heating pad or a moist, warm towel may reduce pain and swelling in early pregnancy.
  • Keep your hands off. In the first few weeks, breast play and typical lovemaking can be uncomfortable. Experiment with new positions that don’t involve breast contact.
  • Get a new bra. Get fitted for a new bra at least once during your pregnancy to compensate for your growing breasts.
  • Use breast pads. You can use breast pads — linings for the inside of your bra —during your first trimester to prevent nipple chaffing.
  • Wear a bra to bed. Many women find that wearing a maternity or sports bra helps them sleep more comfortably.

6. It’s from breastfeeding

Many mothers experience sore nipples when they first start breastfeeding. An improper latch can cause a lot of pain, and it isn’t uncommon for nipples to become dry and cracked. Seek help from a lactation consultant if your nipples are sore or raw.

Breastfeeding can also lead to:

  • Lactation mastitis. This can cause redness, pain, and flu-like symptoms.
  • Engorgement. An oversupply of milk can lead to engorgement, which makes your breast painful and hard. It can also lead to plugged ducts.
  • Plugged ducts. A plugged duct feels like a tender and sore lump, usually in only one breast.
  • Fungal infections. Yeast infections can cause aching, shooting pain, and itchy nipples.

If breastfeeding is painful, you can also talk to a lactation consultant. There are different feeding positions and techniques you can use that will help both you and your baby.

You should also see your doctor if you begin experiencing symptoms of mastitis.

What you can do

Researching latching techniques and talking to a lactation specialist are often the best ways to relieve soreness associated with breastfeeding.

You may also find it helpful to:

  • Try expressing or pumping a little milk between feedings if your breast is hard and engorged. This will soften the breast and nipple and make feedings less painful.
  • Try changing positions each time you breastfeed.
  • After breastfeeding, express a few drops of milk and rub it around your nipples. It has healing properties that can help sooth cracking skin.
  • Massage the area around plugged milk ducts and apply a warm compress.
  • Avoid trapping moisture beneath breast pads. Let your nipples air dry after breastfeeding and try using breathable cotton pads instead of disposable ones. Change them often.
  • If you return to work, pump on the same schedule that your baby was feeding when you were at home.

7. It’s from hormone medications

Breast pain and tenderness are side effects of certain hormone medications, such as oral contraceptives. Birth control pills contain the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Other side effects of birth control pills include:

Hormone supplements and replacements can also lead to breast pain. This includes infertility treatments and hormone replacement therapies (HRT) that are used after menopause.

What you can do

Talk to your doctor about trying a different medication. Different brands have different combinations of hormones, and you may tolerate one better than the other.

If you’re taking hormonal birth control, you may wish to:

  • Try a hormonal IUD. You may tolerate the steady release of hormones better.
  • Try a copper, hormone-free IUD. You may be better off without hormonal treatment.
  • Switch to condoms. Replace your hormonal birth control with a barrier method.

If you’re undergoing HRT, you may consider switching from oral or injected medication to a topical cream. This can help you control the dose of hormone, as well as the location it can spread to. Talk to your health care provider.

8. It’s because your breasts are fibrocystic

Fibrocystic breast changes are a common cause of breast pain. More than half of women experience fibrocystic changes at some time in their lives.

Many women with this type of breast tissue don’t experience any symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • pain
  • tenderness
  • lumpy or rope-like texture

These symptoms often appear in the upper, outer area of the breasts. Your symptoms may worsen right before your period begins.

What you can do

You may be able to find relief with:

  • OTC pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) should help.
  • Heat. You can also try using a heating pad or hot water bottle to reduce pain.
  • A supportive bra. You may find that wearing a sports bra can help relieve some of the pressure on your breasts.
  • Hormonal birth control. Oral contraceptives can help prevent your symptoms from worsening during your period.

Although these symptoms can usually be treated at home, you should see your doctor if you notice:

  • a new lump
  • a lump that seems bigger
  • continuous or worsening pain
  • changes that continue after your period ends

9. It’s an infection

An infection of the breast tissue is called mastitis. Mastitis is most common among women who are breastfeeding, but it can happen to anyone. It typically affects only one breast.

Symptoms will likely begin suddenly. In addition to pain, you may experience:

What you can do

If you’re experiencing symptoms of infection, see your doctor right away. They’ll prescribe a course of oral antibiotics, which can usually clear the infection within a week. Without treatment, you may develop an abscess.

In addition to taking antibiotics, here are a few other things you should do:

  • Get lots of rest and drinks lots of fluids, like you would if you had the flu.
  • Avoid wearing bras or other tight clothing until the infection clears.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, continue to do so. Increasing feedings or expressing milk between feedings may reduce pain.

10. It’s a cyst

Breast cysts are small sacs in the breast that fill with fluid. Cysts are soft, round, or oval lumps with easy-to-feel edges. Many women say they feel similar to a grape or water balloon, though they can sometimes feel hard.

You can have one cyst or several. They can appear in one breast or both. Many women with cysts don’t experience any symptoms, but you might feel pain and tenderness around the lump.

Often the lumps become larger and more painful just before the start of your period, and then decrease when your period is over. You might also experience nipple discharge.

What you can do

If you suspect that you have a cyst, see your doctor. They can confirm that what you’re experiencing is a cyst and not something more serious.

Cysts without symptoms require no treatment. If you’re experiencing symptoms, you may find it helpful to:

  • Take an OTC pain reliever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can treat pain and reduce swelling.
  • Apply a compress. A hot or cold compress may relieve some of the pain.

Eat less salt. Salt contributes to water retention, which can lead to swelling and pain.

If home remedies aren’t enough, your doctor can drain the fluid to help relieve your symptoms.

When to see your doctor

Although many causes of breast pain and sensitivity can be treated at home, you should see your doctor if you begin experiencing severe symptoms.

This includes:

  • persistent pain or swelling
  • fever
  • chills
  • unusual discharge

Your doctor can help diagnose your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that suits your needs. Medication can often help clear your symptoms within a week or two.

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