What is breast
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 common.
Breast pain, also called mastalgia, is a common condition
among women. According to Sutter
Health California Pacific Medical Center, breast pain affects 50 to 70
percent of women. The pain is usually categorized as either cyclical or
Cyclical pain means the pain is associated with your
menstrual cycle. Pain linked with the menstrual cycle tends to subside 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 its causes can be harder to identify.
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
of breast pain
Breast pain can be caused by a variety of factors. Two of the most common
causes are hormone fluctuations and fibrocystic (lumpy) breasts.
A woman’s menstrual cycle causes hormone fluctuations in
estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones can cause a woman’s breasts to
feel swollen, lumpy, and sometimes painful. Women sometimes report that this
pain gets worse as they get older due to increased sensitivity to hormones as a
woman ages. Sometimes, women who experience menstrual-related pain won’t have
the pain after menopause.
If breast pain is due to hormone fluctuations, you will
usually notice the pain getting worse two to three days before your period.
Sometimes the pain will continue throughout your menstrual cycle.
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.
Developmental periods that affect a woman’s menstrual cycle
and potentially cause breast pain include:
As a woman ages, her breasts experience changes known as
involution. This is when breast tissue is replaced by fat. A side effect of
this is the development of cysts and more fibrous tissue. These are known as fibrocystic
changes or fibrocystic breast tissue. While fibrocystic breasts don’t
always cause pain, they can. These changes aren’t usually cause for concern.
Fibrocystic breasts can feel lumpy and can increase
tenderness. This most usually occurs in the upper and outer portions of the
breasts. The lumps can also enlarge in size around the time of your menstrual
Breastfeeding and breast
Breastfeeding is a natural and nutritious way to feed your
infant, but it isn’t without its pitfalls and difficulties. You can experience
breast pain while breastfeeding for a number of reasons. These include:
- Mastitis: Mastitis is an
infection of your milk ducts. This can cause severe and strong pain as well as
cracked, itching, burning, or blistering on the nipples. Other symptoms include
red streaks on the breasts, fever, and chills. Your doctor will treat these
Engorgement occurs when your breasts become overfull. Your breasts will appear
enlarged and your skin will feel tight and painful. If you cannot feed your
baby soon, you can try pumping or manually expressing your milk. You can do
this by placing your thumb on top of your breast and your fingers underneath
your breast. Slowly roll your fingers back against your chest wall and forward
toward your nipples to empty your breast.
latch: If your baby isn’t latching on appropriately to your nipple, you will
likely experience breast pain. Signs your baby may not be latching properly
include cracking nipples and nipple soreness. A lactation consultant at the
hospital where you gave birth can typically help you establish a healthier
Remember: Breastfeeding doesn’t have to hurt. See your
doctor or call a lactation specialist if you are having difficulty
breastfeeding. You can also visit La Leche
League International to find a certified lactation consultant in your area.
Breast pain can have other causes, including:
- Diet: The foods a woman eats
may contribute to breast pain. Women who eat unhealthy diets, such as those
high in fat and refined carbs, may also be at greater risk for breast
- Extramammary concerns:
Sometimes breast pain isn’t because of your breasts, but because of
irritation of the chest, arms, or back muscles. This is common if you’ve
engaged in activities such as raking, rowing, shoveling, and waterskiing.
- Breast size: Women with
larger breasts or breasts that aren’t in proportion to their frames can
experience discomfort in their necks and shoulders.
- Breast surgery: If you’ve had
surgery on your breasts, pain from scar tissue formation can linger after
the incisions have healed.
- Medications taken:
Antidepressants, hormone therapy, antibiotics, and medications for heart
disease can all contribute to breast pain. While you shouldn’t stop taking
these medications if you have breast pain, talk to your doctor if
alternative options are available.
- Smoking: Smoking is known to
increase epinephrine levels in the breast tissue. This can make a woman’s
When to see your
If your breast pain is sudden and accompanied by chest pain,
tingling, and numbness in your extremities, seek immediate medical attention.
These symptoms can indicate a heart attack.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if your pain:
- keeps you from daily
- lasts longer than two weeks
- accompanies a new lump that
appears to be getting thicker
- seems to be concentrated in
one specific area of your breast
- seems to get worse with time
At your appointment, you can expect your doctor to ask you
about your symptoms. Questions could include:
- When did your breast pain
- What makes your breast pain
worse? Does anything seem to make it better?
- Do you notice the pain
getting worse around the time of your menstrual cycle?
- How would you rate the pain?
What does the pain feel like?
Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam. They may
also recommend imaging tests, like a mammogram, to visualize
your breast tissue. This could allow them to identify cysts in your breast
tissue. If you have cystic breasts, your doctor might do a needle
biopsy. This is a procedure where a thin needle is inserted into the
cyst to remove a small sample of tissue for testing.
Is breast pain
linked to breast cancer?
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
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. Examples of diagnostic tests can include:
- Mammogram: Doctors use
this imaging test to identify abnormalities in your breast tissue.
- Ultrasound: An
ultrasound is a scan that penetrates the breast tissue. Doctors can use it to
identify lumps in breast tissue without exposing a woman to radiation.
- Magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI): An MRI is used to create detailed images of breast tissue to
identify potentially cancerous lesions.
A biopsy is the removal of breast tissue so a doctor can examine the tissue
under a microscope for the presence of cancerous cells.
A doctor can use these tests to determine if your breast
pain may be related to cancer.
can help reduce breast pain?
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:
- wearing a supportive bra 24
hours a day when pain is at its worst
- reducing your sodium intake
- taking calcium supplements
- taking oral contraceptives,
which may help to make your hormone levels more even
- taking estrogen blockers,
such as tamoxifen
- taking medications to relieve
pain, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications, such
as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
Treatment for noncyclical pain will depend on the cause of
the breast pain. Once the cause is identified, your doctor will prescribe
specific related treatments.
Always talk to your doctor before starting to take any
supplements to ensure they won’t interfere with the medicines you’re taking or
any conditions you may have.