Breast Pain: The good news and what you need to know

Jun 22, 2021


Breast pain, which is known as mastalgia, can be frightening as pain of any kind is commonly associated with disease or injury. The good news is that the causes of breast pain, more often than not, are benign and are not related to disease such as breast cancer. Breast pain is actually quite common and accounts for more than half of all breast-related health care visits and is usually related to hormonal changes in your body or something simple, such as a poor fitting bra. Breast pain can also be non-uniform, ranging from a dull ache to a sharp pain or just a sense of uncomfortable fullness. To understand the causes of breast pain and what you should do when you experience it, it is important to understand more about two different types of breast pain.

Cyclical breast pain

Cyclical breast pain changes with hormonal changes in your body. It typically involves both breasts, involves either the entire breast or the upper outer portion, and may radiate to the armpit. The most common sign of cyclical breast pain is that it varies with your menstrual cycle and is typically worse during the week prior to the onset of your period. Often times, cyclical breast pain subsides or improves after your period. It is also common to feel like your breasts are lumpier during the week prior to your period. Cyclical breast pain is the most common type of breast pain and usually does not require any treatment or medical evaluation.

Noncyclic Breast Pain

The other type of breast pain is noncyclic breast pain. Noncyclic breast pain typically involves only one breast and is independent of your menstrual cycle. It is often not associated with any particular pattern. The cause of noncyclical breast pain is often more difficult to determine. Just like with cyclical breast pain, most causes of noncyclical breast pain are benign. A poor-fitting bra is often found to be the most common culprit. Other causes include pregnancy, injury or a prior surgery. While not common, any pain associated with breast cancer tends to be noncyclical and is usually isolated to one focal point.

When should I talk to my healthcare provider about my breast pain?

  • You have a lump in the area of pain that does not go away after your period. 
  • You have redness, swelling or drainage from the area (signs of infection).
  • You have nipple discharge.
  • Your breast pain is not clearly associated with your menstrual cycle or lasts more than two weeks.
  • Your breast pain is local to one particular spot and does not present itself throughout the entire breast.
  • Your breast pain continues to worsen.
  • The pain is prohibiting you from normal function and comfort.
  • Even if you do not fit into any of these categories, if you are concerned, it is recommended you discuss your symptoms with your provider.

What will my provider do?

Your provider will ask you questions about your breast pain. These may include:  How long has it been there? Is the pain associated with any other changes in your lifestyle or body? Have you noticed a lump or any other changes to your breast? How bad is the pain? What does the pain feel like? Do you have any family history of breast cancer? 

Your provider will likely examine your breasts for lumps, skin changes, focal tenderness or nipple discharge. Depending on the exam and your answers to the questions, your provider may order imaging tests such as a mammogram or a breast ultrasound.

Breast pain is quite common and typically is not associated with breast cancer. Cyclical breast pain is related to hormonal changes in your body and will typically come and go with your menstrual cycle. Non-cyclical breast pain has a wide variety of causes which can make the cause more difficult to determine but is also usually related to benign processes in the breast. Talk to your healthcare provider about your breast pain, particularly if you have a lump in the area of pain that does not go away after your period, redness, swelling, drainage from the area (signs of infection), nipple discharge, or if your breast pain is not clearly associated with your menstrual cycle.

Category: Breast Cancer

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