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Is Breast Reduction Right for You?

Large breasts affect nearly 1 million American women, but there is help available.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

WebMD Feature

Extremely large breasts have been linked to a number of physical complaints including back aches, neck pain, and numbness in the fingers in hands. They have also been implicated in migraineheadaches, known to cause shortness of breath, and have prevented women from doing everything from aerobic exercise to picking up their children, to sitting at a desk.

Experts estimate extremely large breasts affects nearly 1 million women nationwide.

"Sometimes a woman with very large breasts will know instinctively that the extra weight on her chest is causing the problems but just as often she doesn't recognize the connection and sometimes that can lead to years of unnecessary suffering," says Bethannie Snodgrass, MD, a plastic surgeon and author of the new book, When Less Is More: The Complete Guide for Women Considering Breast Reduction Surgery.

This, says Snodgrass, can be particularly true for women who have never had a professional bra fitting and may believe their breasts are smaller than they are.

"There are women who are literally squeezing their breasts into a D or DD cup and when they get measured they discover they are really an F or even a G cup," says Snodgrass. And that, she adds, is often their first clue that at least some of their health problems may be related to their breast size.

Breast Size and Your Symptoms

While doctors aren't sure of all of the links between breast size and health complaints, they do know that many problems arise from changes in the normal anatomical structure caused by the excess weight on the chest.

"As women get older and heavier, their shoulders naturally roll forward, which in turn puts compression in the thoracic outlet -- the area where the ribs, shoulder blades, and nerves come through a rather narrow triangle," says Snodgrass.

That rolling forward, she says, combined with the changes in the anatomic space in the back, compresses nerve fibers enough to cause the pain.

"The larger your breasts are, the more you will pull forward, and the more compression occurs -- and over time that is going to lead to some significant discomfort," says Snodgrass.

Additionally, doctors say many women with large breasts also experience shortness of breath, as well as headaches and shoulder pain, all stemming from the excess weight on their chest.

"Some gals will also have numbness in their arms, and paresthesias (nerve tingling) from the weight on the shoulders pulling on nerves behind the collar bone," says Mark Jewell, MD, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS).

By the end of the day, says Jewell, the pressure on the shoulders from the bra straps alone can be a significant source of pain.

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