Breast pain, also known as mastalgia, is a common concern for many women. It can feel sharp, dull, tight, or tender. Just as there are various ways to describe the sensation, there are several reasons why it might occur. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of discomfort, read on to discover what might be behind it.
Types of breast pain and their causes.
1. Cyclical Breast Pain
What it is: This type of pain is linked to your menstrual cycle. It means the pain comes and goes with your periods.
- Often feels like a heaviness or tenderness.
- Both breasts are usually affected, especially the upper, outer portions.
- The pain may radiate to the armpit.
2. Non-Cyclical Breast Pain
What it is: This pain isn’t related to your menstrual cycle. It might not have a clear pattern.
- It can be in one or both breasts.
- The pain might be constant or come and go.
- Can be caused by an injury, previous surgery, or other non-hormonal factors.
3. Extramammary Breast Pain
What it is: The pain feels like it’s in the breast, but its source is somewhere else.
- Pain could be from the chest wall, muscles, joints, or even the heart.
- Treatments would target the actual source, not the breast.
4. Inflammatory Breast Pain
What it is: This pain is due to an infection or inflammation.
- Often associated with breastfeeding (known as mastitis).
- The breast might be red, swollen, warm, or have other signs of infection.
- Needs medical attention.
Breast pain can be concerning, but understanding its various causes can help alleviate worries and reasons behind breast pain, explaining them in plain and simple terms to help you grasp the concepts easily.
- Menstrual Cycle Changes: Many women experience breast pain due to hormonal fluctuations during their menstrual cycle. This is completely normal and usually subsides once the cycle ends.
- Pregnancy: Breast tenderness often accompanies pregnancy, caused by hormonal changes as the body prepares for breastfeeding.
- Breastfeeding: Engorgement and milk production can lead to discomfort during breastfeeding.
- Injury or Trauma: Accidental injuries to the breast, like a blow or fall, can cause pain.
- Cystic Changes: Fluid-filled cysts can develop in breast tissue, causing pain that varies throughout the menstrual cycle.
- Fibrocystic Breasts: Non-cancerous lumps and discomfort can arise due to fibrous tissue changes.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy: Hormone medications might lead to breast pain as the body adjusts.
- Breast Size and Support: Ill-fitting bras or inadequate support can strain the breast tissue, causing pain.
- Stress: Emotional stress can affect hormones and contribute to breast pain.
- Muscle Strain: Straining the chest muscles through exercise or heavy lifting can result in discomfort.
- Costochondritis: Inflammation of the cartilage between ribs can radiate pain to the breasts.
- Shingles: The shingles virus can cause pain and rashes in the breast area.
- Mastitis: Infection of breast tissue, often occurring during breastfeeding, leads to pain, redness, and swelling.
- Breast Abscess: A pocket of pus within the breast can cause localized pain and swelling.
- Medication Side Effects: Some medications may list breast pain as a potential side effect.
- Mastalgia: Chronic breast pain not linked to any specific cause.
- Chest Wall Pain: Pain from the chest wall, ribs, or muscles can be felt in the breast area.
- Hormonal Birth Control: Some women may experience breast pain as their body adjusts to birth control methods.
- Breast Cancer: While not usually a primary symptom, breast cancer can cause pain in some cases.
- Fibroadenoma: A benign breast tumor might lead to pain if it presses on nearby tissue.
- Lactose Intolerance: Consuming dairy products when lactose intolerant can cause breast pain.
- Heart Issues: In some instances, heart problems can be felt as discomfort in the chest and breast area.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Acid reflux can cause a burning sensation that may be mistaken for breast pain.
- Lung Conditions: Certain lung conditions can lead to referred pain in the chest and breast.
- Rib Fracture: A fractured rib can cause sharp pain that extends to the breast area.
- Anxiety: Anxiety and panic attacks might result in chest and breast discomfort.
- Fatty Acid Imbalance: An imbalance in fatty acids in the diet can contribute to breast pain.
- Thyroid Issues: Thyroid dysfunction can disrupt hormone balance and cause breast pain.
- Allergies: Severe allergic reactions can lead to chest tightness and discomfort.
- Lifestyle Factors: Poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking can indirectly contribute to breast pain.
Common symptoms related to breast pain.
- Tenderness in the Breast: This feels like a mild soreness, especially when touched. It’s like the ache you feel after exercising, but it’s in the breast.
- Sharp, Stabbing Pain: Some women might feel a sudden sharp pain that comes and goes quickly, like being pricked with a needle.
- Burning Sensation: It feels like a hot or warm sensation, similar to a sunburn but inside the breast.
- Heaviness or Fullness: The breast might feel swollen or heavier than usual, like when you’re carrying a bag that’s too full.
- Throbbing or Pulsating Pain: This feels like a regular beat or rhythm of pain, almost like a heart beating.
- Tightness: The breast feels constricted or compressed, similar to wearing a shirt that’s too tight.
- Swelling: The breast looks and feels bigger, and it might be puffier, just like when your ankle swells after a sprain.
- Changes in Skin Texture: Sometimes, the skin on the breast might look or feel different, like an orange peel’s texture.
- Redness: The skin might appear redder than usual, similar to blush or sunburn.
- Temperature Changes: A part of the breast might feel warmer than other parts or compared to the other breast.
- Nipple Pain: This is when the pain is focused on the nipple area, making it tender or sore.
- Nipple Discharge: Apart from breast milk, any unexpected liquid coming out of the nipple can be concerning. This liquid could be clear, yellow, green, or even blood-stained.
- Lump or Mass: Some women may feel a hard spot or lump inside their breasts. It’s like finding a pea or marble in a bag of rice.
- Localized Pain: This is when the pain is in a specific spot and not all over the breast.
- Cyclic Pain: Pain that comes and goes, usually with menstrual cycles. It’s like a monthly guest that shows up around the same time and then leaves.
- Non-cyclic Pain: This pain doesn’t follow a pattern and can happen at any time.
- Pain Spreading to the Arm: Sometimes, the pain moves from the breast to the arm, almost like it’s traveling.
- Pain with Movement: The pain might get worse when you move, stretch, or exercise.
- Itchiness: Along with pain, the breast or nipple area might feel itchy, just like a bug bite.
- Bruising: Occasionally, there might be a blue or purple discoloration on the breast, similar to when you get a bruise after bumping into something.
Diagnostic tests for breast pain in simple,
1. Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)
A clinical breast exam involves a doctor checking your breasts for lumps, changes in size, or unusual textures. It’s a simple and non-invasive way to start investigating breast pain.
Regularly checking your breasts for changes or abnormalities on your own can help you identify potential issues early on. Your doctor can guide you on how to perform a proper self-exam.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast tissue. It can detect tumors or abnormalities that may not be felt during a physical exam.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the breast tissue. It helps differentiate between solid masses and fluid-filled cysts.
5. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
An MRI provides detailed images of breast tissue using magnetic fields and radio waves. It’s useful for further evaluating abnormalities found in other tests.
6. Fine-Needle Aspiration (FNA)
During FNA, a small needle collects cells from a lump for examination. It helps determine whether a lump is cancerous or benign.
7. Core Needle Biopsy
This involves removing a small tissue sample from the breast for analysis. It helps diagnose the nature of a lump or abnormality.
A pictogram is used when breast pain is related to nipple discharge. It involves injecting contrast dye into the duct and taking X-rays to identify any blockages or abnormalities.
Similar to a pictogram, this test evaluates nipple discharge by injecting contrast dye and taking X-rays. It helps identify issues within the milk ducts.
Thermography measures heat patterns on the breast’s surface. It’s sometimes used alongside other tests to assess blood flow and detect abnormalities.
11. Blood Tests
Blood tests can help identify hormonal imbalances or other health conditions that might be contributing to breast pain.
12. Hormone Receptor Testing
If a lump is detected, this test determines if it’s hormone-sensitive, helping guide treatment decisions.
13. Genetic Testing
For individuals with a family history of breast cancer, genetic testing can identify mutations in genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2, which increase the risk of breast cancer.
14. Breast Densitometry
This test measures breast tissue density, which can impact the risk of breast cancer and the effectiveness of certain tests.
15. Positron Emission Mammography (PEM)
PEM is used to assess breast tissue’s metabolic activity, aiding in cancer detection and evaluation.
16. Sestamibi Scan
This scan helps detect abnormal breast tissue, such as tumors or areas of infection, by using a radioactive substance.
17. Lymph Node Biopsy
If lymph nodes are swollen near the breast, a biopsy can determine if the cancer has spread to them.
18. Chest X-ray
A chest X-ray may be done to check for lung or heart issues that could be causing referred pain to the breasts.
19. Bone Scan
If breast cancer is suspected, a bone scan can reveal whether the cancer has spread to the bones.
20. Breast MRI Biopsy
If MRI identifies abnormalities, a guided biopsy can help determine their nature.
21. Estrogen and Progesterone Receptor Testing
For breast cancer cases, this test helps determine if cancer cells are influenced by estrogen or progesterone, affecting treatment options.
22. Sentinel Node Biopsy
During breast cancer surgery, this biopsy examines the first lymph nodes that cancer cells are likely to spread to.
23. Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI)
MBI is used when mammography results are inconclusive, providing clearer images of breast tissue.
Also known as 3D mammography, this test creates multiple X-ray images to create a detailed view of the breast.
25. Breast Elastography
This ultrasound variation assesses tissue stiffness, helping distinguish between benign and cancerous lumps.
26. Stereotactic Biopsy
Used for non-palpable abnormalities, this biopsy precisely targets the tissue using X-rays and computer guidance.
27. PET/CT Scan
For advanced breast cancer cases, this combined scan assesses the spread of cancer throughout the body.
28. Breast-specific Gamma Imaging (BSGI)
Similar to MBI, BSGI uses a radioactive tracer to detect abnormal breast tissue.
29. Evoked Pain Response Test
This unique test assesses how pain responds when specific breast areas are stimulated, helping diagnose certain types of breast pain.
30. Mammaprint Test
For breast cancer cases, this genomic test assesses the risk of cancer recurrence, aiding treatment planning.
Here, we break down the top treatments for breast pain, in simple English.
- Over-the-counter Pain Relievers: Drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help with pain. Make sure to read the label and take as directed.
- Warm or Cold Compress: Apply a warm or cold cloth to the breasts. This can reduce pain and swelling.
- Wear a Supportive Bra: A well-fitted, supportive bra can prevent movement that causes pain.
- Avoid Caffeine: Some believe reducing coffee, tea, and sodas can help. Though there’s debate, it’s worth a try!
- Evening Primrose Oil: Some women find this natural remedy helpful. It’s available in capsules or as oil.
- Dietary Changes: Eating less salt, fat, and dairy might help. Focus on a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Vitamin E: Found in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens, or as a supplement. Some believe it helps but check with a doctor before starting.
- Topical Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): Creams or gels applied to the breasts to relieve pain.
- Reduce Stress: Stress can affect pain levels. Try relaxation techniques like meditation or deep-breathing exercises.
- Exercise Regularly: While it sounds counter-intuitive, regular physical activity can actually help alleviate breast pain.
- Limit Alcohol and Nicotine: Cutting down on or quitting these can potentially help with the pain.
- Hormonal Therapy: Birth control pills or hormone treatments may help, especially if the pain is related to your menstrual cycle.
- Massage: Gentle breast massage can promote blood flow and relieve pain.
- Acupuncture: Some women find relief with this traditional Chinese medicine approach.
- Breast Pain Clinics: Some hospitals offer specialized clinics for breast pain management.
- Prescription Pain Relievers: For severe pain, a doctor might prescribe stronger medications.
- Avoid Tight Clothing: Tight clothing can irritate the breasts. Wear loose-fitting clothes when you can.
- Reduce Fatty Acids: A diet high in fatty acids may increase breast pain. Cut back on processed foods and fried items.
- Danazol: A prescription drug sometimes used for severe breast pain. However, it can have side effects.
- Tamoxifen: Another prescription medication. It’s used mainly for breast cancer, but sometimes for breast pain.
- Herbal Remedies: Some herbs like chasteberry may help. Always consult a doctor before starting herbal remedies.
- Breast Reduction Surgery: If large breasts cause your pain, you might consider reduction surgery. It’s a big step, so weigh the pros and cons.
- Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can offer exercises and treatments to reduce pain.
- Avoid Excessive Fat: High-fat diets can affect hormone levels, potentially causing pain.
- Birth Control: Some women find relief by changing or stopping their birth control methods.
- Monitor for Breast Changes: Regular self-exams can help you notice any changes in your breasts that might need attention.
- Avoid Triggers: If certain activities or foods trigger your pain, try to avoid them.
- Fish Oil Supplements: Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil might help reduce pain.
- Limit Exposure to Estrogen: Some personal care products have chemicals that act like estrogen. Check labels and choose wisely.
- Consultation: Always see a doctor if you’re worried. They can provide guidance specific to your situation.
Breast pain is common, and there are various treatments, from lifestyle changes to medical interventions. It’s essential to find what works best for you. Always consult a healthcare professional before starting any treatment. By understanding and addressing breast pain, women can take control of their well-being.