Causes for Sharp Breast Pain

Mastalgia and Other Causes of Sharp Breast Pain

Woman with chest pain
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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. 

Let's examine what sharp breast pain means.

What Will My Doctor Do?

If 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 see if your pain is breast-related.

If a breast mass or lump is felt, a diagnostic mammogram and/or biopsy should be ordered. If you are older or at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, your doctor may also order breast imaging. If your doctor suspects another cause for your breast pain, like heart disease, you will need further tests. 

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:
    This type of breast pain varies with your menstrual cycle. Cyclic breast pain increases and decreases in response to your monthly hormone swings. It 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.
    • Noncyclical 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, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) 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

      • 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 pain.

      • 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 — this is serious, please seek medical attention right away — how to tell if you might be having a heart attack.

      Final Thoughts

      When you're trying to get a clear diagnosis of that 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:

      Breast Pain. Bonica's Management of Pain, pages 1052-1053. Jane C Ballantyne, Scott M Fishman, James P. Rathmell. Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009.

      Breast Pain; Pp. 77-85. Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. Susan M. Love, M.D. Fifth Edition, 2010.

      Breast Pain. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. National Institutes of Health. Last Updated: 12/31/2008.

      Salzman B, Fleegle S, & Tully AS. Common Breast Problems. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Aug 15;86(4):343-9.

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