Author: Christine Richardson
Causes of breast pain may be cyclical, meaning linked to hormonal changes, or noncyclical, meaning related to a type of injury. Breast cancer is not usually painful, but if a person experiences unexplained breast pain or unusual breast changes, they should consult a doctor.
Breast pain, or mastalgia, is not usually a result of breast cancer.
Pain in this area of the body affects approximately 70% of females at some point in their life.
This article discusses the types of breast pain that can occur, including the causes and symptoms. It also explores when pain may be a cause for concern, breast pain and cancer in males, and when to seek advice from a healthcare professional.
There are three main types of breast pain that a person may experience in their lifetime: cyclical, noncyclical, and extramammary.
Cyclical breast pain refers to pain resulting from the menstrual cycle. Hormonal fluctuations may affect the breast tissue, which may cause pain, swelling, and tenderness.
Although it is uncomfortable, it is normal and should subside after a few days.
Doctors may recommend taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and wearing a well-fitting bra daily and during exercise.
Noncyclical breast pain refers to more persistent pain in one breast that may spread to the chest. This pain is usually the result of an injury to the breast or surrounding tissue.
Noncyclical breast pain usually is temporary and will disappear after a few days. However, an infection may also be the underlying cause. A person should consult a doctor for a diagnosis. The doctor will usually treat an infection with antibiotics.
Sometimes, breast pain may be due to irritation in the surrounding chest, arm, or back tissue. Certain movements or exercises, such as rowing and lifting, may cause irritation and discomfort.
Treatments may include wearing more physical support and taking medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or acetaminophen.
If a person does not experience relief after 6 months, a doctor may consider additional treatments, such as tamoxifen.
There are various causes of breast pain in females, including the following factors and conditions.
Fluctuations in hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone, cause most types of breast pain.
Significant changes in these hormones happen due to factors such as:
- menstrual cycles, including regular and irregular cycles
Although people breastfeed to provide food for an infant, the method can be painful.
The following factors can cause breast pain while breastfeeding:
- improper positioning
- improper latching
- a poorly fitted breast pump
- mastitis, which is an infection of the milk ducts
- engorgement, which occurs when the breasts become overly full of milk
Doctors recommend that people who experience pain when breastfeeding speak with a lactation consultant.
Fibrocystic breast tissue
It is not uncommon for fibrous tissue, lumps, and cysts full of fluid to form in the breast as people age.
Although fibrocystic conditions are usually harmless, they can cause pain and discomfort — particularly during the menstrual cycle.
Fibrocystic changes usually do not require treatment, but doctors may monitor them.
If a person experiences mild discomfort from fibrosis, they may get relief from applying heat or using OTC pain relievers.
Some prescription medications can cause breast pain. Such medications may include:
- certain antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- hormonal medications, including oral contraceptives and hormone therapy
Although this type of pain is not usually a sign of something serious, it may be something to discuss with a healthcare professional — especially if it is significant.
People with larger breasts may experience breast pain because of stretched ligaments and breast tissue. This issue often causes neck, shoulder, and back pain as well.
Wearing a more supportive bra may help, but a person may also wish to consult a doctor to see if reduction surgery is a viable solution.
Breast cancer is not usually painful. A painless lump in one of the breasts tends to be the first symptom of breast cancer.
However, around 2–7% of people with breast cancer experience pain as the primary symptom.
Pain caused by breast cancer is typically gradual. Anyone who experiences breast pain, especially if it is severe or persistent and not linked to the menstrual cycle or any other cause, should consult a healthcare professional.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some common symptoms of breast cancer to look out for include:
- unexplained pain in any area of the breast
- nipple pain
- unusual changes to the breast size, shape, or skin that may accompany pain
- a new lump in the breast or armpit
- swelling of one part of the breast
- dimpled breast skin
- flushed or flaky skin in the nipple
- nipple discharge (other than breast milk), including blood
It is important to remember that the above symptoms may result from other conditions that are not cancer. If a person is concerned about any worrying symptoms, they should seek medical advice.
Doctors recommend performing frequent (usually monthly) breast self-exams to help detect cancer early and seek prompt treatment.
Most breast pain cases in males tend to be harmless and treatable.
Although under 1% of all breast cancer cases occur in males, this group should be mindful of any lumps or changes in their breast tissue and nipple. They should consult a doctor to have their symptoms evaluated.
Causes of male breast pain
There are other causes of breast pain in males, which may include:
- gynecomastia, or unusual swelling in male breasts due to hormone imbalances
- muscle strain or jogger’s nipple, from exercise
- cysts or fibroadenomas, which are benign lumps
- damage to breast fat
- liver, heart, or lung disease
- the use of certain medications, such as antidepressants and hormonal medications
- neck and shoulder injury
If a person experiences breast pain, they should note when it started to occur and any potential triggers that could have caused it.
If a person is experiencing any of the following, they should make an appointment with a healthcare professional:
- unexplained pain that lasts for longer than 2 weeks
- pain that is accompanied by a lump
- pain that is specific to only one area of the breast
- pain that gets worse over time
- intense pain that inhibits one’s everyday activities
- pain that is accompanied by other changes to breast tissue, such as flushing, inflammation, and irritation
A doctor may recommend a mammogram to provide them with a visual of the breast tissue to detect any lumps or tissue irregularities.