A mammogram is the best imaging tool that doctors can use to detect early signs of breast cancer. Early detection can make all the difference in successful cancer treatment. Mammograms should be part of a women’s general health exam starting at age 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to speak to your doctor about getting mammograms sooner than that.

Getting a mammogram for the first time can cause anxiety. It’s hard to know what to expect if you’ve never done it. But scheduling a mammogram is an important and proactive step in taking care of your health. Being prepared for the mammogram may help ease your mind as you get ready for your exam.

Keep reading to learn more about procedure and what to expect in terms of pain.

Everyone experiences mammograms differently. Some women may feel pain during the procedure, and others may not feel anything at all.

Most women feel some discomfort during the actual X-ray process. The pressure against your breasts from the testing equipment can cause pain or discomfort, and that’s normal. This part of the process should only last for a few minutes. Still, other women feel extreme pain during the exam. Your pain level may vary with every mammogram you receive depending on:

  • the size of your breasts
  • the timing of the exam in relation to your menstrual cycle
  • the skill of your X-ray technician

When scheduling your mammogram, take your menstrual cycle into account. The week after your period ends tends to be the ideal time to get a mammogram. Avoid scheduling your exam for the week before your period. That’s when your breasts will be most tender.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women without a family history of breast cancer schedule their first mammogram by age 40. After age 40, you should get a mammogram at least once per year.

If you do have a family history of breast cancer, especially early breast cancer, tell your doctor. They may recommend more frequent mammograms.

Before your mammogram, you may want to take an over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin (Bayer) or ibuprofen (Advil). This may reduce your risk of discomfort during the mammogram. It may also reduce soreness afterward.

When you arrive at your doctor’s office, you’ll need to answer some questions about your family history and any prior mammograms, if you’ve had any. Most likely, you’ll be taken to wait in a separate waiting room that’s specifically for women getting mammograms.

Shortly before the actual exam, you’ll need to undress from the waist up. The nurse or X-ray technician may place special stickers over areas of your breasts where you have birthmarks or other skin markings. This will prevent the markings from appearing as a lump on the X-ray.

The X-ray technician will then position your breasts, one at a time, on a plastic imaging plate. Another plate will compress your breast while the technician captures X-rays from several angles. The breast tissue needs to be spread out so that the projected image detects inconsistencies or lumps in the breast tissue.

You will get the results of your mammogram within 30 days. If anything is abnormal in the X-ray scan, you may be instructed to get another mammogram or other form of additional testing.

Some women do report feeling sore after they get a mammogram. This tenderness shouldn’t be worse than any pain you feel during the actual X-ray process.

The level of soreness or sensitivity you feel after a mammogram is impossible to predict. It has a lot to do with the skill level of your X-ray technician, the shape of your breasts, and your personal pain tolerance.

You may find that wearing a padded sports bra is more comfortable than wearing a bra with underwire for the rest of the day of your mammogram.

However, most women who get mammograms don’t feel any lingering pain at all once the procedure is over.

Keep reading: Dealing with post-mammogram anxiety »

A mammogram shouldn’t cause bruising or long-term side effects to your breast tissue.

Like all X-ray exams, mammography exposes you to a small amount of radiation. Because of this, there is an ongoing debate about exactly how often women should get mammograms. Oncologists agree that the amount of radiation is minimal, and the benefits of being tested early for breast cancer outweigh any risk or side effects of the radiation.

If you notice any visible bruising on your breasts or still feel sore a full day after your mammogram takes place, you should let your doctor know. These symptoms aren’t cause for alarm, but there’s nothing wrong with voicing your experience or discomfort after what should be a routine procedure.

Pain or no, you will hear from your doctor soon after your mammogram to talk about the results of the scan.

If your doctor spots anything unusual in your results, they may recommend that you get a second mammogram. A breast sonogram may also be recommended as the next method of testing. It’s also possible that you will need to have a biopsy performed if irregularities were detected in your mammogram.

If nothing abnormal is found, you should plan to return for your next mammogram within the next twelve months.

Learn more: What mammogram alternatives are available and do they work? »