Causes 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 womanâ€™s menstrual cycle causes hormone fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones can cause a womanâ€™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 wonâ€™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.
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 donâ€™t always cause pain, they can. These changes arenâ€™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 cycle.
Breastfeeding and breast pain
Breastfeeding is a natural and nutritious way to feed your infant, but it isnâ€™t without its pitfalls and difficulties. You can experience breast pain while breastfeeding for a number of reasons. These include:
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 with antibiotics.
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.
If your baby isnâ€™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 latch.
Remember: Breastfeeding doesnâ€™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:
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 pain.
Sometimes breast pain isnâ€™t because of your breasts, but because of irritation of the chest, arms, or back muscles. This is common if youâ€™ve engaged in activities such as raking, rowing, shoveling, and waterskiing.
Women with larger breasts or breasts that arenâ€™t in proportion to their frames can experience discomfort in their necks and shoulders.
If youâ€™ve had surgery on your breasts, pain from scar tissue formation can linger after the incisions have healed.
Antidepressants, hormone therapy, antibiotics, and medications for heart disease can all contribute to breast pain. While you shouldnâ€™t stop taking these medications if you have breast pain, talk to your doctor if alternative options are available.
Smoking is known to increase epinephrine levels in the breast tissue. This can make a womanâ€™s breasts hurt.
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 mammogram.
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.
- Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of breast tissue so a doctor can examine the tissue under a microscope for the presence of cancerous cells.