Breast Pain Definition, Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

What Causes Breast Pain and What Can You Do?

Breast pain—also called mastalgia—can happen to anyone with breast tissue. Whether your pain feels sharp, dull, aching or shooting, breast pain is always unwelcome. Sometimes your breast pain may be constant, and other times it might vary with your menstrual cycle. Aching, tender, painful breasts are common among young, premenopausal women. But breast pain can occur at any age.

Breast cancer rarely causes breast pain—most breast lumps and tenderness have benign causes. Only around 5 percent of breast tumors will cause breast pain in early-stage cancer. In other words, if you are experiencing breast pain the chances are that it's not cancer, but it still needs to be addressed if it persists.

Learn to recognize the symptoms of breast pain and understand what causes your breasts to hurt. If you make an appointment to see a doctor about breast pain, prepare carefully. Know which tests may be required, as well as which treatments can bring you relief. For many of us, painful breasts can be soothed with easy home remedies. Don't despair—you can get plenty of help for breast pain!

Breast Pain Symptoms

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What are the types of breast pain and what are some of the causes?. Tim Robberts/DigitalVision/Getty

Breast pain can vary greatly, depending on your age, menstrual status and lifestyle. You may have sharp pain, aching, swelling, tenderness, and lumpiness in your breasts. Breast pain may be only on one side or in both breasts. If you have a nursing baby, you may get sore nipples during breastfeeding or you may have a variety of common problems.

Almost Breast Pain 

Breasts are so integrated with our bodies that when pain strikes beneath the breast or very close to it, you might have a hard time locating the pain. Extramammary breast pain can be as simple as a pulled muscle, bruised rib or arthritis. If the pain feels deep to your breast, however, take it seriously. It's not common, but pain due to heart disease or lung conditions may at first feel like it's coming from your breast.

Male Breast Pain

Men's breasts develop differently than women's breasts, but even with less tissue, they may also have breast pain. Male breast pain may be related to injuries, genetic conditions Or—rarely—male breast cancer. That said, for most common causes the treatments which are helpful for women are also helpful for men. 

Causes of Painful Breasts

Most doctors divide breast pain into two types: cyclical and noncyclical.

Cyclical

During your fertile years, you may have menstrual pain as well as breast pain linked to your period. Birth control pills may be given to regulate your period and relieve your breast pain. You might use the combination oral contraceptive pill or the progestin-only pills—both of these approaches may your hormone patterns and may relieve your breast pain.

Noncyclical

In menopause, you may feel trigger-zone pain. Noncyclical breast pain is felt in a specific area of your breast. This type of breast pain can be triggered by illness or injury, weight gain, breast surgery or the wrong size bra.

Preparing for Your Breast Pain Appointment

Whenever you have breast pain, a persistent lump or have a rash on your breast that won't respond to home treatments, it's always good to have a doctor check it out. But there are so many different doctors—how do you know which one to consult? It depends on your situation, but many people choose to first see the doctor that they visit for their yearly Pap smears.

Before you head out to your breast pain appointment, line up some facts about your recent health history and write those down. Describe your pain as accurately as you can: location, intensity, duration, lumpiness and any nipple discharge. Don't make the doctor play a guessing game. State your pain problem clearly, and you will get answers and relief more quickly.

Tests and Diagnosis Procedures That May Be Done

The best way for your doctor to get a clear diagnosis and make a treatment plan is to start by doing a clinical breast exam and running some tests. If your manual exam doesn't reveal the cause of your breast pain, then you may need a mammogram or an ultrasound.

If your nipple is leaking, and it isn't obviously breast milk, your doctor may recommend a galactogram, which collects enough fluid for testing. If there is still no conclusive diagnosis, there are further steps your doctor may recommend. One is a breast MRI. Another is to do a biopsy to get a tissue sample for the pathology lab.

Be sure to go to your follow-up appointments to learn about your diagnosis and get proper treatment.

Treatments to Calm Painful Breasts

Some types of breast pain may be soothed with simple home remedies.

First, figure out where your pain is actually located and what type of breast pain it may be. Cyclical and noncyclical breast pain will require different kinds of treatment. There are many non-prescription and easy home remedies you can use to reduce your breast pain.

For pain that persists or seems related to a breast lump, infection, bones or muscles, go see a doctor for professional help. If you have a breast lump it will need to be investigated further. If you have a breast infection, antibiotics may be needed.

If you have had breast cancer and are experiencing pain, talk to your doctor. There are many causes of breast pain after breast cancer which do not mean that anything bad is happening. Too often women suffer in silence thinking they need to be "brave" after breast cancer surgery and reconstruction. Speak up and talk to your doctor. 

Sources:

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Breast Pain. Updated 11/1//16. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003152.htm

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