Soreness, swelling, heaviness, shooting or burning pangs, tightness -- whatever the feeling, breast pain hurts. It can be troubling too -- it’s very common to wonder if what you’re feeling might be a sign of breast cancer.
Doctors call breast pain “mastalgia.” It’s important to track the cause of it. But know that pain in either or both of your breasts in itself isn’t a sign of breast cancer. Breast tenderness and other discomfort can happen for lots of different reasons. This article examines the most common ones.
Cyclical Breast Pain
Your breast pain is likely cyclical -- meaning it’s linked to your reproductive cycle -- if you have some of these signs:
- The pain feels achy and heavy
- Your breasts swell or seem lumpy
- Both breasts are affected, mainly the upper and outer areas. Sometimes, the pain can radiate to your armpits
- You’re in your childbearing years (around your 20s and 30s), or you’re approaching menopause
To help ease cyclical breast pain, your doctor might recommend you take oral contraceptives, or they may tweak the dosage you already take. They might also suggest you cut back on caffeine, or try over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.
Most breast pain seems to relate to the levels of two hormones -- estrogen and progesterone -- in your body. Doctors aren’t sure what triggers breast pain. It can happen at different times in your reproductive life, such as during:
- Your monthly period or when you have premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Pregnancy, usually in the first trimester
- Breastfeeding. Sometimes a blocked milk duct can get infected, a painful condition called mastitis. It needs to be treated immediately, usually with antibiotics.
Sore nipples can be a sign that your period is coming. That pain, along with other breast pain should ease once you have your period. Pregnancy can also cause your nipples to get tender and swell.
Breastfeeding itself can cause nipple pain as your baby latches on to them. It may feel like a sharp pinch. It could also cause your nipples to crack and bleed. You can ease the soreness with things like ointments, or even rubbing a few drops of milk over your nipples to soften them before you start.
Fibrocystic Breast Changes
This is likely linked to hormones, as well. Fibrous tissue (breast tissue that’s scar-like or ropey) and cysts (fluid-filled sacs) form in your breasts. It can be painful, but it’s normal and usually harmless.
About half of women in their 20s to 50s get it. You don’t need treatment unless your symptoms are severe.
Fatty Acid Imbalance
These acids are found in vegetable and animals oils. If there’s an imbalance of them in your cells, your breasts can be more sensitive to hormones.
To reduce your symptoms, try cutting down the fat in your diet. Your doctor might also recommend a diet high in complex carbs.
Some doctors think taking evening primrose oil helps correct fatty acid imbalances too.
Noncyclical Breast Pain
Breast pain also can be triggered by reasons other than hormones. Yours might be linked to another issue if:
- Your pain feels like soreness, burning, or tightness
- Discomfort is constant (or unpredictable)
- Pain seems to affect one breast in a particular area
- You’ve passed menopause
Extramammary Breast Pain
This pain feels like it’s coming from your breasts. But it’s actually radiating from somewhere else, often the chest wall.
Usually, the pain gets better with rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory meds (NSAIDs), and sometimes cortisone injections.
If you strain your pectoralis major muscle (that’s located beneath and around your breasts) it also can feel like your breasts are the source of the pain. This can result from activities like lifting, raking, and shoveling.
Though mastitis usually occurs in women who are breastfeeding, it can happen at any age. If your clothes chafe against your nipples, that also can irritate them. It can let in bacteria that may lead to infection.
Thrush -- a yeast infection of the breast and nipple -- can feel like a stabbing, shooting, or burning in your nipples. You might also see redness, or dry or flaky skin.
Trauma to a particular area of your breast -- such as from having surgery or getting implants -- can cause breast pain. Sometimes an injury can cause a breast vein to swell and a blood clot to form. Though painful, it’s usually not serious.
Certain prescription meds, as well as hormone medications, can cause breast pain. These include some heart medications and psychiatric drugs.
If you have skin irritation called dermatitis, you might have a rash or swelling around your nipple. The term "dermatitis" includes conditions like eczema and contact dermatitis.
Talk with your doctor about what might cause these skin problems and how you can treat them.
Women with large, heavy breasts can suffer pain from stretched ligaments and breast tissue. It can hurt not only in your breasts, but in your back, neck, and shoulders, as well. Reduction surgery can help, but it, too, can cause pain if tissue is damaged during the operation.
A supportive, sturdy bra can help keep your breasts in place. Wearing a sports bra to bed and when exercising can also help.