Also known as mastalgia, breast pain is a common medical complaint among those assigned female at birth (AFAB). It affects approximately two-thirds of people AFAB during the reproductive years, and it occurs especially frequently in those between the ages of 15 and 40. Mastalgia can take many forms, including heaviness, tightness, swelling, soreness, shooting pains, or burning sensations.
However it feels, persistent breast pain can interfere with your daily functioning and quality of life. It can also be troubling to experience, as many people AFAB who experience it begin to wonder if it may be a sign of more severe medical problems, like breast cancer. Remember, however, that pain, tenderness, or discomfort in one or both breasts doesn’t necessarily indicate cancer.
There are many different reasons a person might experience mastalgia. Here are five of the most common, as well as some tips on how to manage them:
Your Reproductive Cycle
Cyclical breast pain, or pain related to the reproductive cycle, is one of the most common kinds of mastalgia for people AFAB in their 20s and 30s, as well as those approaching menopause. If you experience an achy, heavy feeling in both breasts, or if your breasts feel lumpy or swollen, your breast pain is likely cyclical. At times, cyclical breast pain can also radiate outwards toward your armpits.
This type of mastalgia is most often related to fluctuating hormone levels, and more particularly to increases in the hormones known as estrogen and progesterone. For most people, these hormones begin to rise around three to five days before their monthly period. This rise in hormone levels, in turn, often causes breast swelling, tenderness, and soreness. Pregnant people may also experience persistent soreness in the breasts during their first trimester, as hormone production tends to rise during this time.
Doctors may prescribe oral contraceptives to patients who suffer from cyclical breast pain. If you’re already taking oral contraceptives, your doctor may adjust your dosage or try switching you over to a different variant. Other steps you can take to minimise breast pain from hormonal fluctuations include:
- Reducing your salt intake
- Switching to a low-fat diet at least temporarily
- Refraining from smoking and drinking alcohol
- Taking over-the-counter pain medication
An Improperly Fitted Or Unsupportive Bra
Without support, the weight of your breasts can stretch the ligaments that connect them to the chest wall, which may lead eventually to soreness and aches. This particular kind of breast pain may be especially noticeable towards the end of the day or during exercise. In particularly severe cases, the weight of your breasts may not only strain your chest, but also your shoulders, neck, and back.
Naturally, the larger and heavier your breasts are, the more they’ll need proper support. So, wear a properly sized, durable bra to reduce strain on your chest. This will prevent breast pain and other related aches and pains in your upper body.
No matter the size of your breasts, it’s important to find bras that fit you comfortably. Bras that are too tight or contain underwire often compress and dig into the breast tissue, causing mastalgia. You may also find that your bras either don’t fit you as comfortably or feel smaller a few days before your period. This is due to the breast swelling that hormonal changes can induce.
If your bras are painful or uncomfortable to wear at any point, you’ll definitely want to switch them out for non-wired alternatives in the proper size. It will also benefit you to wear sports bras when you exercise.
Mastalgia is an occasional side effect of many drugs, including hormone therapies and drugs prescribed for high blood pressure and heart disease. If you experience breast pain without an immediately perceptible cause, report it to your doctor and let them know what medicines you’re taking for other conditions. They’ll be able to determine whether one or more of these medications might be causing the issue.
Like the rest of your body parts, your breasts can get infected if they come in contact with harmful bacteria. This condition is known medically as mastitis. While breast infections are most common in breastfeeding women, anyone can contract them.
Common symptoms of mastitis include fever, pain, swelling, and redness in the infected breast. The skin of your breast may also become dry and flaky. Treatment for mastitis typically involves taking antibiotics and pain relievers until the infection resolves.
Breast cysts are tender, fluid-filled lumps that sometimes appear when there’s a buildup of fluid in the breast tissue. The good news is that breast cysts don’t usually hurt and may not bother you at all. Additionally, most cysts will simply resolve on their own without treatment. However, some cysts can be uncomfortable or even painful.
It’s always best to get unusual breast lumps assessed by a doctor, whether or not they cause you any pain. Your doctor may diagnose a breast cyst by drawing fluid from the lump in your breast or by having you undergo a breast imaging procedure like a mammogram or an ultrasound.
Most cases of mastalgia are relatively minor, easily treatable problems. But if you experience severe or persistent breast pain or notice any lumps in your breasts, it’s always better to see a doctor. That way, you can immediately rule out the possibility of bigger medical problems for your own peace of mind.