When to Worry About Breast Pain
by Rachael Zimlich, RN, BSN
Breast pain can be worrisome, but it’s not usually a cause for concern.
Hormones play a big role in the development of breast tissue and the pain that can develop there. This is especially true in women, as hormone fluctuations cause ducts and glands in the breasts to grow and shrink in cycles.
This article will explore the causes of breast pain, as well as when to contact a doctor and how they’ll diagnose your symptoms.
What typically causes breast pain?
While anyone can experience breast pain, it’s more common in people with female sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. These hormones play a big role in the fluctuation of breast tissue structure and size.
During significant hormonal shifts like pregnancy and while breastfeeding, breast pain or tenderness is actually expected.
Most types of breast pain fit into two categories: cyclic and noncyclic breast pain.
Cyclic breast pain is linked to your menstrual cycle and is believed to be caused in part by hormone changes. Pain can develop at different points in this cycle. But it’s most common at the start of the cycle or during ovulation.
Cyclic breast pain is barely noticeable for some people and excruciating for others. It’s not uncommon for this pain to be felt in just one breast or the other. It is often a radiating pain that begins near the armpit.
Noncyclic breast pain can occur at any time and is not linked to your menstrual cycle. This type of pain is pretty uncommon. It can be caused by all kinds of things, like trauma, an injury to the breast tissue, or even arthritic pain. The type of pain can vary, but it’s usually a continuous pain that is felt in one specific area of the breast. It can be sharp, dull, or radiating.
Cyclic and noncyclic causes of breast pain include things like:
- traumatic injury
- certain medications such as birth control or antidepressants
- infections like mastitis or a breast abscess
- lack of proper support from a poorly fitting bra or exercise
- rib injuries
- muscle pain
- fibrotic tissue
- breast cancer
Breast pain — cancer or common ailment?
How common is breast pain? Here are the facts:
- A 2020 review estimates that 70 percent of womenTrusted Source experience breast pain at some point in their lives.
- Between 75 and 88 percent of women who get mammograms or ultrasounds for breast pain end up with normal results, according to the Society of Breast Imaging.
- A noncancerous or benign cause is diagnosed in about 10 percent of these cases.
- Only between 1 and 2 percent require additional testing or intervention.
When should you contact a doctor about breast pain?
Most causes of breast pain will go away on their own with time, medications, or lifestyle changes. However, if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with a doctor for an evaluation and diagnosis:
- a fever
- discharge from your nipples
- sudden increases in pain or pain changes
- a painful lump or mass
- discoloration or skin changes
- pain in one specific area
- pain not associated with your menstrual cycle
We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with how your body experiences breast pain. Your doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
How will a doctor diagnose breast pain?
Your doctor will begin an examination for breast pain by asking you about your personal and family medical history. They’ll want to know which of your relatives — if any — have had breast cancer and at what age.
Genetic testing using your blood or saliva could provide clues about your cancer risk. But there are other considerations in your family history, too.
Your doctor may suggest a one-time or regular mammogram to examine your breast tissue more closely. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women between the ages of 50 and 74 receive a mammogram at least once every 2 years. Get one more often if you have an increased risk of breast cancer.
Other tools that can help identify tissue changes, breast cancer, or other conditions may include:
Biopsies are the tool of choice when it comes to diagnosing breast lumps, which are often associated with a higher risk of cancer.
A mammogram is usually the go-to tool when it comes to diagnosing breast pain and other issues, but ultrasound imaging is sometimes more accurate in people under 30 years old. Mammograms are highly accurate at detecting cancer, though, especially in older adults.
Risk factors for breast cancer
Knowing your risks for breast cancer is important when it comes to breast health. Your family history contributes a lot to your overall risk. You and your doctor should be aware of any family history or genetic mutations that may increase your chance of developing breast cancer.
Outside of family and genetics, other risk factors for breast cancer include:
- being 50 years or older
- early menstruation
- late menopause
- increased breast density
- prior radiation therapy
- certain medication exposures
- hormonal therapy
Treatment of your breast pain depends on the cause. Breast cancer treatment is complex and depends on the cancer type and stage.
Most breast pain, however, can be addressed with medications or lifestyle changes. Some things that you can do to relieve breast pain:
- Review your medications, including the type of birth control you use.
- Make sure you have a good fit for your bra.
- Lower your intake of salty or fatty foods.
- Decrease your caffeine intake.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications.
- Apply ice, a cold compress, or heating pads.
- Use stress reduction or relaxation techniques.
Takeaway - Breast pain is common and usually not serious. Most women will experience breast pain at some point in their lives, but only a few will be diagnosed with a serious problem like cancer.
If you have concerns about your breast pain, talk with a doctor about your symptoms. Be sure to follow their recommendations for regular screenings.
Discussing your risk factors — including family and genetic history — can help you and your doctor make the best decisions regarding your breast health.
Last medically reviewed by Stacy A. Henigsman, DO on April 13, 2022
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— Written by Rachael Zimlich, RN, BSN on April 13, 2022