Causes for Sharp Breast Pain

Mastalgia and Other Causes of Sharp Breast Pain

Woman with chest pain
What are the causes of sharp breast pain?. Patrick Heagney/E+/Getty Images

It can be alarming to have a sharp pain in your breast. When breast tissue develops a burning, tingling, stabbing, or shooting pain you may be caught off guard and start to worry. What could this pain mean for you? How worried should you be?

Talking to Your Doctor About Sharp Breast Pain

The first step if you have sharp breast pain is to make an appointment to see your doctor. This does not mean that experiencing sharp breast pain means something awful is going on—in contrast, most sharp breast pain is not a sign of something serious—but it is impossible to separate out the common non-serious causes from the less common but serious causes without a good conversation and exam.

When you see your doctor for breast pain, she will ask you questions and perform a thorough physical examination to determine the origin of the pain. First, your doctor will try to determine if your pain is breast-related. There are other sources of pain in the chest that may simply feel like they are in your breast. If a breast mass or lump is felt, a diagnostic mammogram, and/or ultrasound, and/or biopsy should be ordered. In some cases, a breast MRI will be needed, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer, are young or have dense breasts. If your doctor suspects another cause for your breast pain, like heart disease, you will need further tests. 

Could Sharp Breast Pain Mean Breast Cancer?

You may have heard that pain in your breast is a good sign, and that breast cancer is painless. This is true, at least to some degree. At times, however, breast pain can be a symptom of breast cancer.

Before your doctor makes a diagnosis of cyclic breast pain or noncyclical (but benign) breast pain, she will want to make sure that your pain is not a symptom of breast cancer. This process can cause anxiety and you may wonder what you're not being told. Make sure to ask any questions you have at this time.

Once your physician determines that your pain is not likely to be breast cancer, she will talk to you about the other possible causes.

What Is Mastalgia

If your doctor determines your breast pain is just that—breast pain and nothing else—this is called mastalgia. There are two types of mastalgia. It's important to know that mastalgia does not increase your risk of developing breast cancer. 

  • Cyclic Breast Pain:
    Cyclic breast pain varies with your menstrual cycle; it increases and decreases in response to your monthly hormone swings. This pain often feels like a dull, heavy, ache in both breasts and is diffuse, located throughout the breast, Cyclic breast pain often extends into your armpit areas. Premenopausal women are most likely to have cyclic breast pain. Here are a few tips for managing breast pain that goes with your cycle.
  • Non-Cyclical Breast Pain:
    A sharp, burning or stabbing pain in one breast that is constant or intermittent is probably not related to your menstrual cycle and may be noncyclical breast pain. This type of breast pain may be inside, beneath, or near the breast. When it occurs, this sharp breast pain feels like it is in one specific area or trigger zone. This type of breast pain can show up regardless of your menopausal status. There are a number of causes of noncyclical breast pain, including oral contraceptive pills, hormone therapy, and other medications. Large breasts may also be painful, especially if a woman is not wearing a proper, supportive bra.

    Treatment for Mastalgia

    The good news is that most women's mastalgia resolves on its own. But if it does not, Tylenol (acetaminophen) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) may be helpful. Home remedies include evening primrose oil, although the scientific data behind it is lacking. Choosing a more supportive bra may also be helpful. And if your pain is related to high-stress levels or too much water retention, try avoiding caffeine and salt for a while. A cup of herbal tea, a lavender-scented candle and a hot soak in the tub may just go a long way toward lowering stress and decreasing breast pain.

    Other Breast-Related Causes of Sharp Pain in The Breast

    • Breast injury or any type of breast surgery—augmentation, reduction, mastectomy or reconstruction—may result in pain. The affected tissues often hurt after surgery (or an injury) as scar tissue develops.
    • Cysts and fibroadenomas may grow and press on adjacent tissue, causing regional breast pain.
    • Near your nipple or beneath it, an abscess may develop or milk ducts may become clogged and infected, resulting in mastitis or ductal ectasia.
    • When your stress levels are high, you may feel sharp pains in your breast, due to tensing nearby muscle groups.
    • Breast cancer very rarely causes sharp breast pain, but it may do so in a few cases.

    Non Breast-Related Causes of Sharp Pain Near The Breast

    Sometimes a sharp pain occurs so close to your breast that it's hard to tell if the pain is in within your breast or beneath it. There could be several causes for this sharp or burning chest pain.

    • If you are experiencing chest pain with breathing, there are a number of possible causes.
    • Costochondritis is a potentially painful inflammation of the chest wall cartilage and bones.
    • Bronchitis is a painful inflammation of the airways that lead into your lungs. The pain of bronchitis is worse when you cough or try to strain for breath, but it can feel like breast pain.
    • If you've been lifting, exercising, or bending improperly, you may have developed a pulled muscle in your chest wall, caused a rib fracture, or brought on back pain—all of which may feel the same as a sharp pain in your breast.
    • Heart Attack—If you believe there is any chance your symptoms could be related to your heart, please seek medical attention right away. Symptoms of a heart attack in women are often very different than those in men. Rather than crushing chest pain, the symptoms in women can be vague, such as just not feeling well, or pain which might be dismissed as being breast pain. But by virtue of childbirth alone, women are often inclined to dismiss pain as a nuisance or annoyance, rather than heed it as a sign that something serious is happening. The first few minutes can be critical in surviving a heart attack. If you are at all uncertain, call 911 immediately.

    Final Thoughts

    When you're trying to get a clear diagnosis of recurrent sharp breast pain, be your own best friend. Keep a chart of your menstrual periods and breast pain cycle so you can judge whether or not the pain is related to your hormonal cycle. Consult your doctor and have a clinical breast exam done. Your doctor will also review your health history and list of medications. If more information about the pain is needed, you may be referred for a mammogram or breast ultrasound. Remember that breast cancer usually does not cause sharp breast pain, but if you find a breast lump and it is painful, get it checked out and treated.

    Sources:

    Kasper, Dennis L.., Anthony S. Fauci, and Stephen L. Hauser. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: Mc Graw Hill education, 2015. Print.

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