While a lot of women with breast pain are rightfully very, very worried the first time they experience it, most of the time, it is nothing to worry about, says Raquel B. Dardik, MD of the NYU Langone Medical Centre. In fact, it turns out that breast pain is a lot more common — and harmless — than you might think.
"You probably don't have cancer," Dr. Dardik puts it bluntly. So, you can take a deep breath and relax.
If you're worried about your breast pain, especially if it's sudden, severe, or seems to be related to a new lump, that should be investigated by your doctor. However, it can ease your mind to know that breast pain is more often associated with a bunch of other (sometimes surprising) things. The way you work out, the medications you take, and your period can all cause some unfortunate soreness in your breasts. Because, after all, breasts are a little more complicated than we give them credit for.
Ahead, we've collected a few of the most common causes of breast pain — and how to feel better.
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No big surprises here but your period, and the time period leading up to your period, can obviously be a factor. "Cyclic breast pain comes and goes with your cycle" and is caused by the monthly hormonal shifts you experience, explains Dr. Dardik. Some women are more sensitive to these changes than others (so they regularly experience this pain), while some only experience it randomly (or never).
The classic case is feeling tenderness seven to 10 days before your period, but the exact timing may vary from person to person. It may feel almost like your breasts are swollen. The key is that the pain tends to completely go away once your period arrives.
Any big hormonal shifts, including pregnancy and menopause, can also cause breast pain. Although in those cases it won't be cyclic, it may still come and go.
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Any hormonal medication — especially birth control — can cause breast pain, because you're getting a dose of hormones different from what your body normally sees, Dr. Dardik says. Although the exact mechanism behind this isn't well understood at this point, we do know that some women definitely notice breast pain with these meds.
Other drugs that can cause similar pain include those prescribed for high blood pressure, hair loss, or acne (e.g. spironolactone). Some psychiatric medications, such as SSRIs, also may list breast pain as a potential side effect.
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"An ill-fitting bra will definitely cause breast pain," Dr. Dardik says. Often, that's due to underwire pushing into the tissue of your breast in a really uncomfortable way.
Jostling your breasts around can aggravate the tissue and cause pain no matter the size of your bust. But bra-related breast pain is "more common with women who are larger-breasted or do vigorous types activity, like running," Dr. Dardik says. That's why it's always important to make sure you have the support you need for whatever activity you're doing — especially if your breasts are larger.
To help with this issue, Canadian company House of Anesi is introducing (and crowdfunding) an innovative bra that adapts to your changing breast size and claims to do away with back pain, get rid of red shoulder marks, underwire marks and underboob sweat. It can't come soon enough, we say.
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Breast infections are most common among women who are breast-feeding. These can form within the tissue of the breast (in a condition called mastitis). But they also happen if milk gets backed up in the milk duct, causing a buildup of bacteria.
Women who aren't breast-feeding can still get breast infections, though they are much less common. In these cases, the infection is often traced back to some sort of damage to the nipple, including piercings.
The key difference here is that the pain will be localised to the area of the infection, Dr. Dardik says. You might also have some redness and hardness in that particular area. And you may have flu-like symptoms, such as a fever and nausea.
If you think you may have a breast infection, it's important to get checked out by your doctor. An untreated infection can turn into an abscess that will need to be drained (possibly with an in-office procedure). But usually, treatment with antibiotics and home care (such as hot compresses to ease pain) can take care of it.
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Yep, in addition to your sports bra making your breasts hurt, your exercise routine itself could be the source of pain. There are two kinds of muscles that might give you soreness in your breasts, Dr. Dardik says. The first is the pectoralis muscles, which sit below your breasts. These are the ones getting a workout when you do, say, bench presses. If these are sore, give 'em the usual treatment: rest, ice, and your OTC pain med of choice.
The other option is the small muscles in between your ribs. If these become irritated and inflamed (the condition is called costochondritis), you'll have very localised pain underneath your breast. The pain usually goes away on its own with some stretching and OTC pain relievers, but your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to help if it's really bothering you.
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Just like it can alter your menstrual cycle, severe stress can also be behind that mysterious breast pain. Emotional stress can create hormonal imbalances, leading to cyclical breast pain, even when you're not on your period. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, "Breast pain can increase or change its pattern with the hormone changes that happen during times of stress." If you feel pain in both breasts, it could simply be hormonal pain, as hormones tend to affect both breasts equally.
Additionally, if you already have a cyst or lumpy (fibrocystic) breast tissue, stress can exacerbate symptoms and cause increased pain from these hormonal shifts. The best way to relieve hormonal breast pain is to use stress management techniques.
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Breast cysts (fluid-filled sacs) are common and don’t always cause pain. But when they do, it’s because they’re pulling and pushing on the tissue that’s already there, Dr. Dardik says. They can cause cyclic or non-cyclic pain. So you may notice them coming and going with your period, but that’s not a sure sign.
Cysts don’t require treatment unless they’re causing you pain, so if you think that’s the source of your discomfort, definitely get checked out by your doctor. Your doc will first confirm that you do have a cyst and, if it’s uncomfortable, the cyst may need to be drained. If you find that you frequently get cysts along with your period, hormonal birth control may help keep them under control.
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A Nerve Issue
Finally, there are several conditions related to your nerves that can cause breast pain. However, Dr. Dardik explains that these don’t tend to just cause pain in your breasts. Pain from a pinched nerve in your neck, for instance, can radiate down into your shoulders and arms. And a condition like fibromyalgia can cause dull aches pretty much everywhere.
So if all you have is pain in your breast, your nerves probably aren’t to blame. But if you're concerned that something like this may be going on, definitely talk to your doctor. You may need imaging or to have special tests that measure the signals coming from your nerves.
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