Breast pain, including shooting pain, is common. In most cases this symptom is not serious, and will go away on its own.

Shooting pain in the breast is also not typically a sign of cancer, unless other symptoms accompany it. Breast pain impacts around 70% of all females at some point in their lives. People often describe breast pain as:

  • stabbing, shooting, or sharp
  • burning, stinging, or aching
  • a swelling or heavy sensation
  • a pulling or tight sensation

Close-up of a woman clutching her chest due to shooting pain in the breast.Share on Pinterest
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Occasional or minor breast pain is very common, and is not usually a cause for concern. However, there are a few situations in which a person should seek medical help.

If a person develops the following symptoms, they should immediately dial 911 (or the number for the nearest emergency department):

  • severe chest pain
  • chest pressure
  • uncomfortable squeezing or fullness in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a couple of moments, or that goes away but then comes back
  • trouble breathing, with or without chest discomfort
  • discomfort or pain in the back, one or both arms, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • a cold sweat, lightheadedness, or nausea
  • loss of consciousness

It is also important for someone to speak with a doctor promptly if breast pain is severe, sudden, or does not improve on its own.

Breast pain is not usually a symptom of breast cancer. However, if breast pain occurs alongside other unexplained or severe symptoms, it may be a sign of a serious condition.

People who experience the following symptoms along with breast pain should speak with a doctor as soon as possible.

  • lumps or bumps in the breast or surrounding lymph nodes
  • inflammation of the breast, armpits, collarbone or around it
  • changes in nipple appearance or structure, such as nipples that turn inward
  • skin dimpling or the skin feeling thicker than normal and looking like an orange peel
  • nipple discharge
  • breast or nipple redness, flaking, thickening, or dryness
  • changes in how the breasts or nipples feel or look overall

Learn more about identifying breast cancer.

In many cases, breast pain is related to hormonal changes. It can also occur due to infection, noncancerous growths or blockages, and injury. Some common causes of breast pain include:

Menstrual cycle

Many people experience breast pain and tenderness that comes and goes in accordance with their menstrual cycle. In this case, changes in hormone levels are the cause of the pain.

This is known as cyclic breast pain. Typically, this type of breast pain develops around a week before a period, and resolves once the period begins. Cyclic breast pain tends to impact both breasts, and may cause:

  • discomfort and lumpiness
  • heaviness
  • burning or prickling pain
  • shooting or stabbing pain
  • tenderness
  • tightness

Around 20–30% of cyclic breast pain cases resolve on their own. It can also recur in around 60% of females.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) products or medications may offer relief. Other things that may reduce cyclic breast pain include:

  • Supportive clothing: Wear bras that fit well and provide comfortable support. A person may wish to avoid underwires and push-up bras while experiencing breast pain or tenderness.
  • Evening primrose oil (EPO): A 2020 study with 1,015 participants aged 14–82 shows that taking EPO was significantly more effective than acetaminophen. While the study did not focus on premenstrual pain, many of the participants were premenopausal, and it shows that EPO causes few side effects.
  • Medications: If a person notices that a new method of hormonal birth control is causing more breast pain than normal, they may wish to consider talking with a doctor about changing their contraception. In some cases, birth control can also improve breast pain.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

During pregnancy, certain hormones in the body rise, increasing blood flow and fluid levels in the breasts. This can cause pain, swelling, and tenderness.

The breasts can also become painful during breastfeeding. This is due to milk building up in the milk ducts. The milk ducts can also become clogged, which may result in slower milk flow. It may also cause a lump to form.

Wearing a supportive bra, such as a maternity, nursing, or sports bra, may help reduce pain during pregnancy. Other strategies include:

  • applying gentle heat to the breast
  • massaging the breasts
  • expressing all the milk from the breast while nursing, to ensure it does not get clogged
  • changing breastfeeding positions to allow for a better flow

Mastitis

Mastitis is a bacterial infection in the breast. Common symptoms include:

Doctors treat breast infections using antibiotics. People can also apply a warm cloth to the breast several times per day to ease pain. If someone has an abscess, a doctor may need to drain it if it does not resolve on its own. Do not attempt to do this at home.

Breast cysts

Breast cysts are oval or round growths filled with liquid. Around 25% of breast masses are cysts, and most are benign. Simple cysts are rounded in shape, and moveable under the skin.

If someone has a large, painful, or uncomfortable cyst, a doctor may be able to drain it. This is accomplished using a fine needle.

If a cyst has irregular or scalloped edges, or shows signs of containing solid areas or debris, a doctor may want to test the cells or fluid inside. This is done to rule out any other conditions, such as breast cancer.

Fibrocystic breasts

This condition occurs when the body begins to grow stiff scar tissue instead of breast tissue. It affects many females during their lifetime. Common symptoms include:

  • lumpy sections or lumps in the breast
  • tenderness or breast pain
  • breast heaviness or swelling

The treatment options for fibrocystic breasts include over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications or oral contraceptives, which can reduce the symptoms. Wearing a comfortable, supportive bra may also help.

Some people find that avoiding caffeine, lowering the amount of salt and saturated fat in their diet, and taking certain supplements reduces symptoms too. For example, people can try:

  • eating 25 grams of ground flaxseed daily
  • taking EPO
  • taking vitamin E

Fibroadenomas

Fibroadenomas are smooth, noncancerous lumps that are easy to move under the skin. They are usually painless, but may hurt more before menstruation.

Most fibroadenomas do not require treatment, but severe or complex lumps may require surgery to remove them.

Other common causes

Other common causes of breast pain include:

  • injuries
  • surgery
  • bras that dig in or do not fit well
  • having larger breasts, which can place strain on the neck or back
  • medications that cause breast pain as a side effect

Less common causes of breast pain include:

Fat necrosis

Fat necrosis occurs when fatty breast tissues die and form hard, round lumps. The symptoms of fat necrosis include:

  • lumps that are often painless, but can be painful or tender
  • red, bruised, or dimpled skin around the lump
  • inverted nipples
  • a lump containing oily fluid

In many cases, fat necrosis does not require treatment, and the symptoms resolve on their own. Doctors can drain large, awkwardly located, or painful lumps.

Mammary duct ectasia

This condition occurs when the milk duct walls thicken, causing fluid to build up in the breast. Common symptoms of mammary duct ectasia include:

  • black or thick green nipple discharge
  • redness or swelling in the nipple
  • pain in the nipple or breast

Many cases of mammary duct ectasia resolve on their own, but to reduce the symptoms, people can try:

  • OTC pain medications
  • placing warm bags or clothes over the nipple
  • wearing supportive bras with pads to absorb any discharge

Whereas cyclic pain is related to a female’s menstrual cycle, noncyclic pain occurs in no particular pattern. It does not appear to be related to menstruation. Determining whether breast pain is cyclic or noncyclic can help to narrow down the cause.

The following table lists the differences between the two:

Cyclic breast painNoncyclic breast pain
occurs before a periodcan occur at any time
goes away when the period begins or endsdoes not come or go based on when periods occur
occurs in both breastscan affect only one breast
tends to be worse in the upper, outer parts of the breastcan cause pain anywhere in the breast
stops after menopausemay continue after menopause, depending on the cause

People who are trying to determine if their breast pain is cyclic can try keeping a symptom diary or using an app to track both menstruation and breast pain episodes.

If there is a correlation, the pain may be hormonal. If not, there may be another cause. It can also be helpful to bring symptom diaries to doctor appointments.

In some cases, pain in the breasts is actually referred pain. This means that the pain or discomfort is being caused by a problem elsewhere in the body.

For example, pain around the chest may feel like breast pain. A compressed nerve elsewhere in the body could also create a sensation of pain in the breast.

Breast pain can radiate or extend from the:

  • neck and shoulders
  • collar bone
  • lungs
  • armpits
  • upper arms
  • throat or esophagus
  • upper spine

Consulting a doctor allows them to determine what is causing the pain, and so to provide recommendations for effective treatments.

Shooting pain in the breast is common, and is often the result of hormonal fluctuations in the body. If a person regularly experiences breast pain before a period, they will often find it disappears on its own when their period begins or ends.

Wearing soft, comfortable bras, using NSAIDs, and applying gentle heat can ease the symptoms. If the pain does not go away, is severe or sudden, or does not appear to be related to normal hormonal changes, speak with a doctor.