October 3, 2023

Navigating Breast Pain: Causes, Relief, and When to Seek Medical Attention


When you experience breast pain, your first instinct may be to wonder if it’s related to breast cancer or another serious underlying condition. However, breast pain is typically related to hormonal fluctuations or other benign causes that sometimes may not be related to breast cancer.

Empower yourself to make informed decisions about your health by learning about the common causes of breast pain, how to get relief, and when to seek medical attention.

Understanding Breast Pain

Having breast pain is a common concern among all gender identities. Just like pain anywhere on your body, it can range from mild to severe, be harmless, or indicate an underlying medical condition in some cases. The uncertainty may put you on edge if you’re unsure of its cause. Breast pain can present in many ways and sensations, such as tenderness, achiness, heaviness, sensitivity, throbbing, sharpness, shooting, stabbing, burning, or tightness in the breast tissue.

A common feature of breast pain, especially in women, is that it tends to be cyclic, meaning the pain follows a regular pattern often associated with your menstrual cycle and fluctuating hormones. Cyclic breast pain may be accompanied by breast lumps or swelling, usually affects both breasts, peaks during the two weeks leading up to menstruation, and is less common in postmenopausal women. Noncyclic indicates the pain is constant or intermittent and is not in sync with your menstrual cycle. It may affect just one breast and be sharper compared to the dull achiness of cyclic breast pain.

Causes of Breast Pain

More often than not, breast pain goes away on its own and isn’t linked to an underlying condition or breast disorder. There are several causes of breast pain, including:

Hormonal factors
Hormonal changes are a common cause of breast pain. People who menstruate may experience breast pain during ovulation or in the days or two weeks leading up to their period. Pregnancy and post-pregnancy involve a flood of new hormones that can cause breast pain. Transgender women who are undergoing hormone therapy may also feel pain as they transition.

Muscle soreness
Muscles may become tense and strained after exercise or repetitive movements or from stress, poor posture, and ill-fitting bras. A pulled muscle or arthritis anywhere around the chest may also cause radiating pain to the breasts.

Fibrocystic breasts
Some people are more prone to developing fibrocystic breasts, which may change to a ropelike or lumpy texture around their menstrual cycle. Before and during ovulation, breast pain and tenderness are normal, especially in the upper and outer areas of the breasts.

Several types of infections may cause breast pain as a symptom. For example, mastitis is fairly common in breastfeeding women. Bacterial, fungal, or other skin infections may also affect the breast region, causing pain.

Injuries to the breast and chest sometimes cause ongoing pain. People who have received a mastectomy may feel pain from the small amount of remaining breast tissue or from scar tissue that has formed around the incision.

Breast size
Pain is sometimes associated with having large breasts that strain the neck, shoulders, and back.

Boys and men can experience painful, enlarged, or uneven breasts, especially if they’re going through a hormonal change. This condition is called gynecomastia.

Breast tenderness is a side effect of some medications, especially oral contraceptives, infertility treatments, antidepressants, antibiotics, high blood pressure treatments, and menopause hormone therapies.

Digestive and heart conditions
Pain under your left breast may be related to digestive issues, such as heartburn or gastritis. If you have a heart condition, such as angina or pericarditis, that could also be a source of pain under your left breast.

Introduction to self-care: Emphasize the role of self-care in managing breast pain

Simple forms of self-care can play a role in preventing and managing breast pain. Here are a few ways to get relief:

  • Proper bra support – A well-fitting bra that provides adequate support helps distribute the weight of the breast tissue evenly across the chest, reducing the strain on your ligaments and tissues and minimizing aggressive movement during physical activities. The right bra can also improve posture, reducing the risk of back and neck pain.
  • Warm compress – A warm compress applied for 15-20 minutes can help relax breast muscles and promote blood flow, reducing muscle tightness and discomfort, especially for women who are breastfeeding or experiencing muscle tension, breast cysts, or fibrocystic breasts.
  • Cold packs – Cold packs are effective for reducing breast pain caused by inflammation, injury, or swelling. When applied for 15-20 minutes, a cold pack can help reduce inflammation and numb the area.
  • Gentle exercises and stretching – Gentle stretches targeting the chest, shoulders, and upper back can relax tight muscles, improve flexibility, promote circulation, aid in lymphatic drainage, and reduce the pressure on the breast tissue.
  • Over-the-counter pain relief – Pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can sometimes be used in the short term to alleviate pain, especially cyclic breast pain from ovulation or pre-menstruation.

asian-woman-self-examining-breastWhen to Seek Medical Attention

Breast pain is rarely indicative of an underlying condition. But if you’re experiencing persistent or severe breast pain unrelated to hormone changes, pain that doesn’t go away after two menstrual cycles, or pain that interferes with your daily life, consult with your doctor for a proper diagnosis and guidance on the best course of treatment. Some women continue to have cyclic breast pain after menopause. Just like premenopausal women, there’s no need to worry unless the pain grows significantly more severe or persistent.

Unusual changes in breast tissue, like lumps, redness, swelling, and discharge, should always be addressed by a medical professional. Prioritize regularly performing self-breast examinations and annual checkups to detect any abnormalities early.