With increasing media attention on health and wellness issues, and the speed that this information travels across the Internet, most women have learned that pain usually means that there is something wrong. And, they fear that breast pain may mean an automatic diagnosis of cancer. The medical term, mastalgia, is one of the most common breast related complaints among women. Researchers believe that up to 70% of women will experience some type of them pain in their breast at some point in their life. (1)
There are actually a variety of causes which can induce pain in the breast, most of which have nothing to do with the malignancy or breast cancer. Interestingly, breast pain is not the most common symptom of breast cancer, but often strikes fear into the heart of many women.
Some degree of tenderness in the breast area is actually normal. Because the function of the breast tissue is defined and controlled by hormones these hormonal levels and changes will also induce discomfort at specific times of the month. It is not uncommon for a woman to have breast tenderness during menopause, menstruation, pregnancy and puberty.
Although breast cancer is a woman’s first fear, and usually not the cause of breast pain, an exam must be done to ensure that there is no lump and either an ultrasound or mammogram should be done to ensure there is nothing hidden. If a woman notices that their breast discomfort is not persistent, but actually fluctuates throughout the month, it is a very useful tool to track along with other symptoms of hormonal imbalances. Interestingly, it can sometimes be one of the first signs of perimenopause for women in their 40s. (2)
While breast pain symptoms will point to some specific conditions it is always best to collect information about the problem first. Because, with an increased amount of data, there is a better chance that the correct diagnosis will be made and appropriate treatment protocols will be recommended.
Breast pain is often classified as cyclical or noncyclical. Cyclical breast pain is related to the secretion of hormones on a monthly basis and is stimulated by estrogen and progesterone. These hormones will stimulate the breast tissue to swell and become lumpier, causing pain and discomfort. Cyclical breast pain can also be made worse by some types of food and medications. Caffeine has a significant impact on the development of discomfort. (3)
There is also been some recent evidence that animal fat can also contribute to breast pain. The reasons are less clear than those with caffeine but it may have something to do with the amount of hormones given to animals or the amount of their own hormones available in the muscle. Some women have an underlying allergy to dairy products which can also cause breast pain.
Another factor which contributes to breast pain is fibrocystic breast disease. This is a condition in which cysts develop inside the ductal system and have a tendency to form scar tissue. There are several different types of fibrocystic breast conditions all of which can cause pain which becomes more evident with hormonal secretions during the month. (4)
Other diagnoses which can cause pain in the breast include an injury to the breast tissue itself, estrogen replacement therapy or the ingestion of an increased amount of soy products which has estrogen type activity, breast papillomas, an abscess, and infection (mastitis), lipomas, neck injuries, arthritis in the neck, cirrhosis of the liver, certain medications, and muscle sprain over the chest wall.
Another contributor to breast pain is stress. Scientists recognize a link between the immune system and our emotions as well as the secretion of hormones in our body. Bras which are ill fitting can not only cause breast pain, but will also cause a reduction in the circulation of lymph through the lymphatic system and can potentially increase the risk of a woman developing breast cancer.
Treatment for breast pain will be different depending upon the underlying cause for the condition. It may also be different based on your particular cultural setting. For instance, women in Italy take vitamin E while women in America are often told to grin and bear it.
Once you have identified an underlying cause for the discomfort and pain, the way to address the pain is to relieve the underlying medical condition. Occupational therapists, who are trained in lymphatic drainage, may be able to give some specific assistance to women who have fibrocystic breast conditions or in women who have breast pain that is not well connected to any other disease process. Certain types of birth control pills may help relieve breast pain because they even out the hormones which are available in the body. Any breast infection may require antibiotics and any injury will require time to heal.
Seek the care of your gynecologist or primary care physician if you have discharge from the nipple, have given birth within the past week, have any signs of a breast infection which may include localized redness, pus or fever or notice a new lump that is associated with the pain and pain after your menstrual period. Any persistent or unexplained breast pain should be evaluated in order to discover the underlying cause and help you find pain relief.
(1) American Family Physician: Treatment Options for Matalgia
(2) Association of Reproductive Health Professionals: Perimenopause
(3) National Cancer Control Programme: Breast Pain
(4)MayoClinic.com: Fibrocystic Breasts