The severity and location of breast pain can vary. Pain can occur in both breasts, one breast, or in the underarm. Severity can range from mild to severe and is typically described as tenderness, sharp burning, or tightening of the breast tissue.
Hormonal changes due to events such as menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause can also have an effect on the type of breast pain experienced.
Common causes of breast pain
The following are eight common causes of breast pain.
1. Breast cysts
Breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and some may be at a higher risk for developing painful breast conditions than others. At times, women may develop milk duct or gland changes resulting in breast cyst forming.
Breast cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can be soft or firm and may or may not cause pain. These cysts typically enlarge during the menstrual cycle and go away once menopause is reached.
Oral hormonal contraceptives can lead to breast pain in some cases.
Certain medications can contribute to the development of breast pain. Medications that are linked to an increase in breast pain include:
- Infertility treatments
- Oral hormonal contraceptives
- Postmenopausal estrogen and progesterone preparations
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)
- Digitalis preparations
- Methyldopa (Aldomet)
- Spironolactone (Aldactone)
- Some diuretics
People with breast pain should speak to their healthcare provider to see if any of their medications are having an effect.
3. Breast surgery
Undergoing breast surgery and the formation of scar tissue can lead to breast pain.
Costochondritis is a type of arthritis that occurs where the ribs and breastbone connect. While this condition is not related to the breast, the burning pain caused by it can be confused with actual breast pain. This form of arthritis is seen in older adults and people with poor posture.
5. Fibrocystic breast changes
Women who are premenopausal and those who are undergoing treatment with postmenopausal hormone treatment may develop lumpy, tender, and swollen breasts caused by the buildup of fluid. This harmless condition is referred to as fibrocystic breast changes.
Mastitis is a painful infection of the breast. It is most commonly experienced by lactating women due to a clogged milk duct. However, it is not an infection that only occurs in breastfeeding women.
7. A poorly fitted bra
Breast pain can be caused by an improperly fitted bra. At times, bras are worn too tight or loose, leaving the breasts improperly supported. Lack of proper support can lead to breast pain.
8. Breast cancer
Most breast cancers do not cause pain. However, inflammatory breast cancer and some tumors can lead to breast discomfort.
People should contact their doctor if they experience:
- A lump or other area of concern in the breast
- Pain or a lump that is not resolved following a period
- Any nipple discharge - bloody, clear, or otherwise
- Breast pain without a known cause or that does not go away
- Symptoms consistent with a breast infection such as redness, pus, or fever
Cyclic and noncyclic breast pain
Breast pain can be classified into two categories: cyclic and noncyclic pain.
Breast pain can sometimes occur alongside changes in the menstrual cycle.
Cyclic breast pain is described as pain that matches with hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. This pain is typically worse during the 2 weeks before getting a period.
This type of breast pain is responsible for about 75 percent of complaints related to the breasts.
Cyclic breast pain is most commonly experienced by women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. It occurs most commonly in the upper outer areas of both breasts and at times, the underarm.
Women who experience cyclic breast pain also often report fibrocystic changes including lumpiness and thickened areas of breast tissue. Cyclic swelling, pain, breast aching, heaviness, and lumpiness tend to resolve after menstruation.
Unlike cyclic breast pain, noncyclic breast pain is completely unrelated to the menstrual cycle. It tends to occur most commonly in postmenopausal women between the ages of 40 and 50.
This form of breast pain is often described as constant or intermittent tightening, burning, or soreness. It tends to remain in one area of the breast and can be caused by trauma or injury.
How to manage breast pain
It is important for people to speak with their healthcare provider to determine the cause of breast pain and if there is a need to be concerned.
Although self-care remedies may not be scientifically proven, some of these helpful tips may relieve some discomfort:
- Wearing a supportive bra throughout the day, a sports bra during exercise, and considering sleeping in a bra for additional comfort
- Limiting intake of caffeine and sodium; sources of caffeine include chocolate, coffee, tea, and soft drinks
- Applying hot or cold compresses to the breasts
- Consuming a low-fat diet, increasing dietary fruits, vegetables, and grains
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Taking vitamins, which are available to buy online, such as Vitamin B6, Vitamin B1, and Vitamin E
- Using over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen
- Trying relaxation methods to reduce stress, anxiety, and tension
- Considering cyst aspiration or drainage if recommended
- Keeping a symptom journal to help work out if the pain is cyclic or noncyclic
People should speak with their healthcare provider before trying self-care techniques to see if they are appropriate. In certain circumstances, people may require medical intervention for their breast pain.