Why Do My Breasts Hurt?

Overview of Breast Pain

Breast pain is common among women, and they may experience symptoms differently. Some women's breasts hurt around the time they are about to have their period, while others feel pain throughout the cycle. Older women may experience breast pain after menopause and it may be described as a localized pain. It can also be a sharp burning pain, although some feel a certain tightness or tenderness. Although most cases are not cancer-related, one should consult a physician when the symptoms are persistent, especially in postmenopausal women.

Cyclic or Non-Cyclic Breast Pain

Many cases of pain in the breast are cyclic, although others are not related to the menstrual cycle. Here's how to distinguish between the two.

Many young women experience breast pain within two weeks before their menstrual period and this may or may not occur with every cycle until they undergo menopause. However, this type of cyclic breast pain usually wanes after their period. They may feel some lumps or swelling in their breasts during this stage of the cycle and these, too, may disappear with the pain after their period. The pain is usually described as a dull, aching or heavy feeling which affects both breasts, particularly the upper and outer parts. The pain may radiate towards the underarms and increase in intensity towards the start of the menstrual period.

On the other hand, breast pain that is not related to the menstrual cycle might occur either intermittently or constantly and may be described as tightness or a burning soreness. This is usually experienced by postmenopausal women in one of their breasts. The pain may be localized in a small area, although some feel a diffuse type of pain.

Causes of Breast Pain

It is difficult to pinpoint the main cause of breast pain, but it may be due to one or a combination of these factors:

  • Hormonal changes - Changes in reproductive hormone levels are strongly related to the menstrual cycle. These in turn coincide with the occurrence of breast pain which may disappear or decrease when the woman gets pregnant or undergoes menopause. However, there are no studies which have linked these hormonal changes to breast pain.
  • Anatomical changes - Noncyclic pain in the breast may occur as a result of anatomical factors like breast trauma, breast surgery, breast cysts, or other localized changes in the breast. This type of breast pain can also originate from the chest muscles, joints or the heart, and can radiate to one breast.
  • Imbalance in fatty acids - Another theory proposes that the breast tissues are sensitive to hormonal levels which are affected by imbalances in fatty acid levels. This is the reason why some women use evening primrose oil, a source of gamma-linolenic acid (a fatty acid). It is believed to reduce breast tissue sensitivity to hormones by restoring balance in fatty acid levels.
  • Effect of medications - Hormonal medications like oral contraceptives, infertility medications and hormonal therapy for menopause can cause breast pain. Other medications that can affect the breasts include antidepressants like sertraline (Zoloft) and fluoxetine (Prozac).
  • Large breasts - Breast size can bring about constant breast pain that may be accompanied by discomfort in the neck and shoulders, as well as back pain. These may be relieved by breast size reduction.

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, breast pain disappears after a period or within a few months. Few women will need specific treatment and home remedies are often sufficient to relieve these pains. You may try:

  • Using a warm or cold compress on the affected breast.
  • Take a pain reliever like ibuprofen (Advil/ Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Wearing a professionally fitted support bra.
  • Using a sports bra while sleeping or during exercise, especially on those days when breasts are more sensitive.
  • Using relaxation therapy to control your anxiety over severe breast pain.
  • Limiting or eliminating caffeine intake. Although no studies prove its effectiveness, many women swear that it works.
  • Reducing your fat intake to improve fatty acid imbalance.
  • Noting when you feel breast pain to determine whether your pain is related to your cycle or not.

Breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer, but you should consider seeking medical advice if:

  • You feel that the pain is getting worse.
  • Your symptoms interfere with normal activities.
  • The pain is localized in a particular area of the breast.
  • The pain persists daily for more than two weeks.

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