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HealthInfo Canterbury

Breast pain

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Breast painBreast pain (the medical name is mastalgia) is a common problem, experienced by most women at some time in their lives. If you experience breast pain, it isn't usually any reason to worry, as most breast pain is caused by hormonal changes rather than breast cancer or other serious problems. But if you're worried about the pain, see your GP for a check up.

You need to see your general practice team urgently if you notice any skin or nipple changes, discharge from your nipples, or a lump in your breast whether you have breast pain or not.

Young boys and men can also experience pain in the breast area. Sometimes this pain can occur at the same time as enlargement of the breast tissue (called gynaecomastia). In older men gynaecomastia may develop with the use of certain medications. Any discomfort usually gets better after three to six months.

What causes breast pain in women?

Some breast pain in women is caused by hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle (your period). This is called cyclical breast pain and is most common in women between the ages of 30 and 50. This type of pain usually comes in the days before your period, and gets better when your period begins. It usually affects both breasts, making them feel more swollen and lumpy during this time. The pain may vary from one month to the next.

Pain that isn't linked to your period cycle is called non-cyclical breast pain. You may have this pain all the time or it can come and go. It may be in one or both breasts. It may occur for a number of reasons.

The contraceptive pill, Depo-Provera injection, progesterone implants, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can cause breast pain in some women due to the hormonal effects of these medications. Pregnancy is also a common cause of breast pain or tenderness due to a rise in hormone levels at this time. Breastfeeding may cause breasts to become sore.

Older women sometimes get breast pain that isn't caused by hormones, but can be related to menopause. Often no cause can be found but occasionally cysts or age-related changes to the milk ducts can be the problem.

Pain from the chest wall muscles, or cartilage under the breast can also be a cause of non-cyclical breast pain.

It's very rare for breast pain to be caused by cancer.

What does breast pain feel like?

The type of pain and amount of pain vary between women. Some words used to describe breast pain include "awareness", "discomfort", "heaviness", and "fullness". Others might feel a burning, stabbing, or throbbing pain. You might get breast pain in both breasts or just one.

What can I do if I have breast pain?

Most breast pain will go away on its own without any need for treatment, but there are a few simple ideas you can try. See your general practice team if you feel no improvement after three months of trying these ideas, or if you are worried.

Breast pain calendar

Use the Breast Pain Calendar to keep a record of when you feel pain, and what the pain feels like. This is a useful way to see any patterns, to see if treatment is working, and to find out if your breast pain is related to your period. Take the completed calendar to your doctor's appointments.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Breast Surgeon, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed December 2018. Last updated March 2019.

See also:

Preparing for your doctor's visit

Sources

Page reference: 48976

Review key: HIBRP-48976