Breast Pain Causes (that Aren’t Cancer)

Over 70% of women deal with breast pain at some point, although only about 15% end up requiring medical treatment. Known as mastalgia, breast pain seems scary to many women. Burning pangs, heaviness, soreness, tightness, swelling… however breast pain affects you, it’s troubling. 

For many women, the first thought they have when they experience breast pain is, “Do I have breast cancer?” It’s a frightening thought. But pain or discomfort in your breasts can occur for many different reasons. Whether you’re dealing with pain in one breast, both breasts, or pain that runs under your arm, it’s critical to determine what’s actually causing the pain. 

What’s Causing Your Breast Pain?

Here’s a closer look at 11 of the most common breast pain causes….

1. Poorly Fitting or Non-Supportive Bra 

A poorly fitting or non-supportive bra is a common and easy-to-fix cause of breast pain. If it’s too loose, it can leave you without proper support, meaning gravity pulls down on your breasts. A bra that’s too tight can compress your breasts. Either way, discomfort can result. 

Does Your Bra Fit Properly? 

How do you know if your bra fits you properly? Ask these questions: 

  • Are the bra straps or the underwire digging into my body?
  • Do my breasts bulge out on the sides or spill out over the top?
  • Is the center of the bra sitting close to my breastbone?
  • Can I pass a finger under the band of the bra below the cups with ease?
  • Does the bra ride up in the back?
  • Do you exercise a lot?

Solve the Problem

If you’re not sure if you have the right fit, many lingerie and department stores provide a bra-fitting service to help you get the right size. If you exercise a lot, try using a sports bra to reduce pain after exercise.

The following cause of breast pain is one that you can detect with a simple breast self-exam…

2. Breast Cysts

Certain women are more likely to deal with painful breast conditions than others are. One condition some people are more likely to develop than others? Cysts.

What Do Cysts Look and Feel Like?

Sometimes, changes to glands or milk ducts may result in the development of breast cysts. These cysts feel like a hard lump in your breast and they’re filled with fluid.

Breast cysts don’t always result in pain. However, they do usually change sizes through your menstrual cycle. Most women no longer experience them after menopause. 

Cysts or Tumors?

Usually, breast cysts are filled with fluid, not cells. They’re different from tumors and are not cancerous. However, if you’re doing a breast exam, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a cyst and a tumor, so it’s always a good idea to discuss any type of lump you feel with your doctor. 

3. Costochondritis

What is Costochondritis?

Costochondritis is the inflammation of the cartilage connecting your ribs to your breastbone. It often occurs in people who have arthritis, but physical strain or injury may cause it, too.

Why Costochondritis Causes Breast Pain 

While costochondritis isn’t related to your breasts, it does cause a burning pain that you may confuse with breast pain because it occurs in the chest.

Other Symptoms of Costochondritis 

Costochondritis usually affects women and individuals over the age of 40. Other symptoms of costochondritis may include: 

  • Pain in the chest wall that radiates into the abdomen or back
  • Pain with physical activity, deep breathing, or coughing 
  • Tenderness right on the sides of your breastbone
  • Pain that increases when you move your trunk 

The following cause of breast pain? It could be something as simple as the medications you take…

4. Certain Medications 

Some medicines may leave breasts feeling achy or painful.

Drugs That May Cause Breast Pain 

Medications linked to breast pain as a side effect include some cardiovascular treatments, medicines that affect hormones, and certain drugs used to treat mental health conditions. 

Specific drugs that may cause breast pain include: 

  • Antipsychotics
  • Oral hormonal contraceptives (birth control)
  • Methyldopa 
  • Certain types of antidepressants
  • Spironolactone 
  • Postmenopausal progesterone and estrogen preparations
  • Digitalis 
  • Certain diuretics
  • Infertility medicines
  • Anadrol, which is a steroid 

If you’re having breast pain, talk to your physician to see if your medicines could be to blame.

The following cause of breast pain? It’s incredibly common, most often known by tell-tale symptoms like morning sickness…

5. Pregnancy

Breast pain is a lesser-known symptom that comes with pregnancy. However, it’s often one of the earliest symptoms of pregnancy. 

What Breast Pain Feels Like During Pregnancy

The breast pain that comes with pregnancy may come in many forms. it may happen in one breast or both. It may be constant or intermittent (every now and then).

During those early weeks of pregnancy, this discomfort is usually achy and dull. Breasts may feel swollen and heavy, as well as abnormally sensitive to the touch. 

Many women notice that the nipples, in particular, are sensitive and painful. This generally goes away in a few weeks. As you get further into the first trimester, you’ll likely notice a heaviness and fullness instead of tenderness. 

Why Pregnancy Causes Breast Pain 

Breast pain is commonly the first symptom of pregnancy; in fact, it may occur as early as a week or two after conception. The soreness usually peaks during the first trimester as the body floods with hormones. 

Why all the hormones? Well, hormones work quickly to get your breasts ready for breastfeeding. Blood flow increases to the area, which means breasts usually grow larger. However, this fast growth can result in discomfort, itching, and irritation. 

To prepare for breastfeeding, the milk ducts also start growing. Once again, hormones are responsible for stimulating the growth of your milk-producing glands. 

Are There Any Other Breast Changes During Pregnancy?

Along with discomfort and changes in size, blue veins may appear during pregnancy. The shape and size of nipples may also change in shape or size, and it’s common for nipples to darken, as well.

The following cause of breast pain? It’s somewhat of the opposite condition of pregnancy…

6. Premenstrual Breast Tenderness and Swelling

Known as cyclical mastalgia, premenstrual breast tenderness and swelling is common in menstruating individuals. This discomfort is one of the primary symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

What Do these Breasts Changes Feel Like?

The breast soreness associated with PMS ranges in severity and symptoms often peak right before menstruation and then fade away after the menstrual period. 

Why PMS Causes Breast Pain 

The fluctuation in hormone levels throughout the menstrual cycle is generally responsible for premenstrual-related breast tenderness and swelling. Hormones rise and fall normally during your cycle, although the timing of those hormonal changes may vary from person to person.

What Specific Hormones are to Blame?

Estrogen causes the enlargement of your breast ducts. Progesterone results in the swelling of milk glands. Both of these changes can leave breasts feeling tender.

Both estrogen and progesterone levels usually increase during the last 14 days of your menstrual cycle. Specifically, estrogen hits its peak in the middle of your cycle, and progesterone usually peaks during the week right before menstruation. 

Medications that include hormones may also result in breast changes like swelling and tenderness. 

Other Symptoms of PMS

Additional common symptoms of PMS may include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive discomfort (diarrhea, nausea)
  • Increased appetite
  • Food cravings
  • Abdominal cramping 

If you have concerns about these symptoms, discuss them with your doctor. Of course, the following menses-related conditions could also be to blame for breast pain…

7. Perimenopause and Menopause 

During your reproductive years, sore breasts are often an indication that your period is about to begin. However, breast pain frequently occurs as women near menopause as well.

What are Perimenopause and Menopause?

  • Perimenopause is the transitional time when periods slow and then stop due to all the hormone changes that occur in the body.
  • Once you haven’t had a period in a year, you’re considered to be in menopause.

When Do these Conditions Develop?

Most women reach menopause around the age of 51 and experience perimenopause during their 40s. 

Why Perimenopause and Menopause Cause Breast Pain 

It’s the changing levels of progesterone and estrogen that generally result in breast pain during both perimenopause and menopause. When you experience perimenopause, your progesterone and estrogen levels start to rise and fall in erratic patterns before tapering off. Those sudden spikes in hormone levels affect your breast tissue and can cause this discomfort. 

What Does Perimenopause Pain Feel Like?

Breast tenderness related to perimenopause generally feels different than the usual soreness you’ve experienced throughout your menstrual cycle in the past. Most women report that during perimenopause, the pain feels like a soreness or burning in one or both breasts. Others experience a throbbing, stabbing, and sharp pain. 

What Happens During Menopause?

For most women, breast tenderness improves after their periods stop completely, and the body is no longer producing estrogen. However, if you begin taking hormone therapy to treat other symptoms of menopause, you may continue to experience breast pain. 

Other Symptoms of Perimenopause

The same hormonal changes that cause breast pain during perimenopause may result in additional symptoms. Other signs of perimenopause may include: 

  • Night sweats
  • Changes in mood
  • Hot flashes
  • Loss of libido
  • Reduced pleasure during sex
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Irregular periods  
  • Difficulty sleeping

The next cause of breast pain can affect anyone, although it most often occurs in those who breastfeeding…

8. Mastitis

What is Mastitis?

Mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue that may involve an infection. While it most commonly affects breastfeeding women, it may also occur in those who aren’t currently breastfeeding.  

Why Mastitis Causes Breast Pain 

The inflammation and infection that may come with mastitis are what cause breast pain. How does it happen, though? Commonly, milk that gets trapped in the breast is the common cause of this condition, but blocked milk ducts and bacteria that enter the breast are additional causes.

How Serious is this Condition?

In some cases, if it’s not treated promptly or adequately—or if mastitis is a result of a blocked milk duct—it’s possible for an abscess to develop within the breast, which can be extremely painful. 

Other Symptoms of Mastitis

Symptoms and signs of mastitis often develop suddenly. These may include: 

  • Swelling of the breast
  • Breast that is warm to the touch
  • Redness of the skin of the breast, which may occur in a wedge-shaped pattern
  • Fever of over 101° F
  • Breast lump or a thickening of the breast tissue
  • Burning sensation or pain that is constant or occurs when breastfeeding
  • Feeling of general illness such as tiredness and aches

The next cause of breast pain can look and feel alarming, although it typically isn’t a sign of a medical emergency…

9. Fibrocystic Breast Changes 

Fibrocystic breast changes often result in breast pain and discomfort.

What are Fibrocystic Breast Changes?

Fibrocystic breasts are made up of tissue that feels rope-like or lumpy in texture. In many cases, women who have fibrocystic breasts don’t have any symptoms. But pain in the breasts may occur and often becomes more bothersome right before menstruation occurs. 

Why Fibrocystic Breast Changes Cause Breast Pain 

Fibrocystic breast changes may result in pain because they can cause breasts to become swollen, tender, and lumpy. This occurs because of a buildup of fibrous tissue and fluid-filled cysts in the breasts.

Are There Ways to Alleviate the Pain?

Some methods that alleviate this discomfort include taking over-the-counter medicines or sticking with a low-salt diet to reduce problems with fluid retention. 

Does this Condition Mean Increased Cancer Risk?

Keep in mind, fibrocystic breast changes are very common, particularly in women between the ages of 20 and 50. It has not been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. 

Other Symptoms of Fibrocystic Breasts 

Beyond discomfort, additional symptoms of fibrocystic breasts include: 

  • Similar breast changes in both breasts
  • Areas of thickening in breast tissue that blend into surrounding tissue
  • Lumps in the breasts that blend in with the rest of the tissue
  • Breast lumps that grow or get smaller throughout your menstrual cycle
  • Increase in lumpiness and breast pain that occurs mid-cycle each month
  • Dark brown or green (non-bloody) discharge from nipples that leaks without squeezing or pressure

Although fibrocystic breast changes are usually normal, if you find a new lump, an area of excessive thickening, or breast changes continue after your period, you should make an appointment with your physician.

The following condition on our list? It’s not actually related to breast pain, although many people mistake it for breast pain, anyway?…

10. Chest Wall Pain 

Chest wall pain is often mistaken for breast pain. It can feel as if it’s coming from your breasts, even if it’s not. 

Common Causes of Pain in the Chest Wall 

Some of the most common causes of pain in the chest wall include: 

  • Inflammation of tissue surrounding the ribs due to Tietze’s syndrome or costochondritis
  • Pulled chest muscle
  • Gallstones
  • Angina 

In most cases, this pain may spread down the arm when you move. With pressure, the pain may intensify.  

Cancer or Something Else?

As you can see, there are plenty of causes of breast pain that aren’t related to cancer. In fact, most of these pains and discomforts are perfectly normal and not a sign of another serious medical condition.

However, considering that 1 in 8 women in the United States will experience invasive breast cancer at some point in their lives, it still pays to know a little bit about the symptoms of this condition. After all, catching any type of cancer early vastly increases the odds of survival…

11. Breast Cancer 

In most cases, breast cancer doesn’t cause pain. However, some tumors and inflammatory breast cancer may cause some discomfort. 

When Does Breast Cancer Cause Pain in the Breasts?

While pain isn’t a common early symptom of breast cancer, sometimes a tumor in the breast may cause pain as it begins to push into the healthy tissue nearby. However, tumors aren’t always to blame for breast pain.

Women who experience inflammatory breast cancer, for example, often experience tenderness or pain very early. This type of breast cancer usually grows very quickly and begins causing dimpling and reddening of the skin on the breast. Paget’s disease, a very rare type of breast cancer, may also cause burning and pain early on, as well as nipple irritation. 

When to Contact Your Doctor 

Even though breast pain isn’t generally linked to cancer, there are some symptoms you shouldn’t ignore. Contact your doctor if you notice: 

  • A lump that doesn’t go away after you menstruate
  • Pain that stays after menstruation
  • A lump in the breast or tissue that is thickening in the breast
  • Symptoms that may indicate a breast infection, such as fever, pus, or redness
  • Nipple discharge that is clear, bloody, or otherwise
  • Breast pain that doesn’t go away
  • Breast pain that seems to have no known cause 

What’s Next?

What’s most important for people with breast pain to know?…

What to Do Next 

Your healthcare professional can help you determine the cause of your breast pain and whether you require treatment. 

Self-care is Key

Some self-care suggestions for breast pain include: 

  • Applying cool or hot compresses to the breasts
  • Wearing a supportive bra during the day and a sports bra when exercising
  • Managing your weight
  • Keeping a journal of symptoms to track whether breast pain is noncyclic or cyclic
  • Using over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin to relieve mild breast pain
  • Using relaxation techniques to reduce tension, anxiety, and stress 

When to Contact a Doctor

Of course, it’s always wise to speak with your doctor before you try self-care strategies to ensure they’re appropriate. In some cases, medical intervention may be needed for breast pain. 

A lump, unexplainable breast pain, or other breast changes should always be discussed with your physician. Depending on your symptoms, your medical provider may suggest additional tests, such as a mammogram, breast biopsy, or other interventions to determine the cause of the pain.  

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