Sharp pain in your breast can be alarming, but it isn’t always a cause for concern.
For many people, breast pain is related to the menstrual cycle or other hormonal changes.
Although you can usually treat mild soreness at home, infections and other underlying conditions require medical attention.
In these cases, there are typically additional symptoms. Your healthcare provider will use this information to help identify the underlying cause and advise you about any next steps.
Keep reading to learn what may be causing this pain and when to see a doctor.
There are times when you should call your local emergency services or have someone drive you to the emergency room right away.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience sharp breast pain alongside one or more of the following:
- feelings of pressure, fullness, or squeezing in the chest that may come and go
- pain that radiates from the chest to the arms, back, jaw, neck, or shoulders
- unexplained nausea or sweating
- shortness of breath
- sudden confusion
- loss of consciousness
Breast pain often falls into one of two categories: cyclic or noncyclic.
Cyclic pain is usually related to your menstrual cycle, leaving noncyclic pain as a catchall term for everything else.
Use this chart to help narrow down the type of pain that you’re experiencing.
|Cyclic breast pain||Noncyclic breast pain|
|typically appears before, during, or after your menstrual cycle||doesn’t seem to be connected to your menstrual cycle|
|is often described as dull, heavy, or aching||is often described as burning, tight, or sore|
|is accompanied by swelling or lumps that go away after your period ends||may be constant or come and go over the course of several weeks|
|usually affects both breasts equally||usually affects a specific area on one breast only|
|may worsen two weeks before your period starts and improve after bleeding begins||is more likely to affect people who have already experienced menopause|
|is more likely to affect those in their 20s, 30s, or 40s|
Your breasts are made up of fat and granular tissue. More fat and tissue results in a larger, heavier bust.
This can contribute to tenderness in the breasts, as well as pain in the chest, neck, and back.
Physical activity can exacerbate these symptoms, even if you’re wearing a supportive sports bra.
The fluctuating hormones associated with your monthly menstrual cycle are a common culprit for breast pain. However, no two cycles are alike.
For example, some people may only experience breast pain right before their periods, due to the increase in estrogen.
Others may have more substantial pain during their periods, when their estrogen levels start to fall.
Your body may also retain more water before or during your period. This can make your breasts appear fuller, and they may press on ligaments, blood vessels, or other areas, causing discomfort.
Other times of hormonal fluctuation can lead to breast pain.
For example, your progesterone levels increase during pregnancy. This causes your breasts to retain more fluid. It also plays a role in preparing your milk ducts so that you can pump or breastfeed.
This can all contribute to breast pain. Your nipples may also be more sensitive during this time.
And, just as you can have breast pain during your menstrual cycle, you can also experience pain when your menstrual cycle goes away.
This happens during menopause, when your estrogen levels decrease, leading to greater breast sensitivity and susceptibility to pain.
Breast pain is a known side effect of many medications, including:
- oxymetholone (Anadrol)
- chlorpromazine (Largactil)
- digitalis (Digoxin)
- methyldopa (Aldomet)
- spironolactone (Aldactone)
Birth control pills and other hormonal medications can also cause breast pain, often related to your menstrual cycle.
Although some people take birth control pills to help minimize breast pain and other menstrual symptoms, others may find that they experience more pain instead of less.
If you think a medication is contributing to your symptoms, continue taking the medication and consult a doctor. You shouldn’t discontinue use without your doctor’s guidance and approval.
A history of injury to the breast can result in lingering discomfort.
This includes blunt trauma, such as when a steering wheel or airbag hits the chest during a car accident.
Falls and blows to the chest can also result in lingering pain.
These surgeries can affect blood flow and nerve transmission, resulting in painful side effects over time.
Cysts are a common source of breast pain, especially in those ages 35 and older.
A cyst occurs when a gland in the breast becomes plugged or blocked with fluid. You may or may not be able to feel a lump in this location.
If the cyst is large or in an awkward spot, it can place extra pressure on nearby breast tissue and cause pain.
Although cysts usually go away on their own, treatment is available.
Talk to a doctor or another healthcare provider if the pain is severe or if your symptoms are otherwise interfering with your day-to-day life.
They may be able to speed the healing process along by draining the cyst.
An abscess occurs when bacteria collect in the breast to create an often-painful, fluid-filled lump.
Breast abscesses are most common among people who are breastfeeding. However, they can also affect anyone who has a history of breast injury or other skin infections.
Other symptoms may include:
Mastitis refers to inflammation or infection in the breast tissue. It primarily affects people who are breastfeeding.
It occurs when bacteria from the infant’s mouth enters the breast through the milk duct.
Other symptoms of mastitis may include:
- a lump or thickening of breast tissue
- redness, often in the shape of a wedge
- a fever of 101°F (38°C) or higher
Some people may experience chronic mastitis. For example, people who are menopausal or postmenopausal may go on to develop ductal ectasia.
This condition causes the milk ducts to become clogged with dead skin cells and other cellular waste products.
It can cause:
- unusual nipple discharge, which is likely white, green, or black
- nipples that are inverted, turning inward
If the bacteria continues to build up, an infection can occur. This will present with the usual mastitis symptoms.
Fat necrosis is a type of scarring that can occur after you’ve had breast surgery or an injury to the breast.
The condition causes scar tissue to develop in place of breast tissue.
When the fat cells die, they can release oil that forms a cyst. Doctors simply call these oil cysts.
Fat necrosis and oil cysts can both cause lumps in the breast that may sometimes trigger chest pain.
Fibroadenomas are noncancerous lumps that often occur from ages 15 to 35. These lumps are usually round and easy to move when touched.
Although fibroadenomas are usually painless, larger lumps may press on nearby tissues and blood vessels, causing discomfort.
Some fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6, help reduce inflammation in the body.
If you don’t get enough of these fatty acids in your diet, your breast tissue may become more sensitive to inflammation and hormonal fluctuations. This can result in breast pain and discomfort.
Upping your intake of oily fish, seeds, and nuts can help restore the balance and alleviate your symptoms.
Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland is unable to produce enough of certain hormones.
Although the thyroid helps regulate many bodily functions, symptoms are often slow to develop.
Over time, you may notice:
- breast pain
- weight gain
- dry skin
- thinning hair
- muscle weakness
Sometimes, pain you feel in the breast doesn’t actually originate in or extend to the breast at all. Doctors call this extramammary pain.
Common examples include:
- Muscle spasm. When a muscle contracts and can’t relax, a spasm occurs. Muscle spasms of the chest wall, ribs, or back can all cause chest pain.
- Acid reflux. This condition occurs when acid from the stomach goes up into the esophagus and sometimes the mouth. This can cause a painful burning sensation in the chest.
- Costochondritis. This condition causes inflammation in the cartilage where the rib and breastbone connect. Sometimes, it can cause chest pain that can feel like a heart attack.
- Bronchitis. This condition causes inflammation in the airways, resulting in excessive coughing and mucus buildup.
- Pneumonia. This is a serious respiratory infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs. Coughing and chest pain are common.
- Shingles. This condition results from the same virus that causes childhood chickenpox. Later in life, it can cause a painful rash to form on the breasts.
- Thoracic spine disease. Sometimes pain from a slipped disc or from spinal joints rubbing together can transmit to nerves in the chest, increasing the severity. You may find that certain movements or coughing make the pain worse.
- Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a nerve and soft tissue disorder that causes muscle pain and tenderness. This may include chest discomfort.
Breast pain usually isn’t associated with breast cancer.
Inflammatory breast cancer may also cause:
- discoloration that often resembles a bruise
- dimpled or pitted skin
- a change in nipple shape or position
- a sudden change in breast size
- enlarged lymph nodes
Researchers aren’t sure what causes inflammatory breast cancer, but they have identified a couple of risk factors.
You may be more likely to develop this condition if you’re:
- a woman
See a doctor right away if you think that your symptoms indicate cancer. They can determine the underlying cause and advise you about any next steps.
If the pain doesn’t go away in a week or it worsens over time, see a doctor or another healthcare provider.
They can determine whether the pain is extramammary or related to the breast, then advise you about any next steps.
If you think you have a serious illness, such as pneumonia, seek treatment as soon as possible to prevent your symptoms from worsening.