Breast pain, also called mastalgia, is caused by a wide variety of things. Most of the causes of breast pain are not serious health risks, so the pain is usually treated symptomatically. The pain usually takes the form of tenderness or soreness of the breast as opposed to a sharp, shooting pain. Causes of breast pain include hormones, breast cysts, certain medication side effects, large breast size and breast tumors, which may or may not be cancerous.
The most common cause of breast pain is hormonal fluctuation during a woman’s menstrual cycle. This is a natural occurrence, but breast tenderness does not occur in all women. If breast pain is severe or bothersome, one of the possible treatments to reduce this symptom is the use of hormonal birth control, especially combined oral contraceptives. Birth control pills help regulate hormone levels and can decrease the negative effects of the menstrual cycle in a lot of women. The catch is that taking the pill may cause breast tenderness as a side effect in some cases; most women tolerate the effects of birth control pills well, but some are sensitive to the hormones and experience unpleasant side effects. Hormonal fluctuations also cause breast tenderness and pain during pregnancy; in some women, one of the first pregnancy symptoms is breast tenderness. Breast pain during pregnancy can not be treated with hormonal therapy. In general, the occurrence of breast tenderness decreases after menopause because of the diminished effect of sex hormones. Hormones cause cyclic breast pain, or breast pain that occurs monthly. All other causes of mastalgia do not cause a cyclic pattern of breast tenderness.
In addition to birth control pills, other hormone-based medications can also cause breast pain. For example, hormone therapy in post-menopausal women can have this effect. Infertility treatments that affect hormone levels can also cause this symptom. Aside from hormonal medications, other medications can also have the potential side effect of causing breast tenderness and pain in some women; mastalgia was reported as a side effect of some antidepressant medications.
It is thought that women with extremely large breasts, those larger than a DD cup, can suffer from breast pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and upper back pain due to the size of their breasts. In some cases, breast reduction surgery can help with this problem, but all surgeries have risks. Breast reduction surgery carries a risk of causing permanent breast pain after healing, although this is a rare occurrence.
Some studies have shown a connection between levels of fatty acids and breast pain; it is thought that these chemicals play a role in how hormones affect the breasts. Deficiencies of certain fatty acids have been shown to worsen cyclic breast pain due to hormonal fluctuation. One remedy that is suggested for cyclic breast pain is consuming gamma-linoleic acid, a fatty acid that can be found in evening primrose oil. Other studies have shown a connection between reducing dietary fat intake and a long-term reduction in breast tenderness and pain, but it is not clear why this connection exists.
Just because you feel a lump in your breast does not mean that you have breast cancer. Cysts and fibroadenomas both take the form of breast lumps. They do not always cause pain, but sometimes they do. Cysts are fluid-filled, and they usually feel soft when pressed. Fibroadenomas are solid and rubbery to the touch. Both cysts and fibroadenomas are benign. Sometimes a biopsy may be necessary when a breast lump is found to see whether it is malignant or benign. This procedure requires taking a small sample from the breast tumor, or, sometimes, removing the whole tumor surgically.
Cancerous breast tumors, like other types of breast tumors, do not usually cause breast pain. Pain in the early stages of development of the cancer is rare; the breast pain does not usually occur until the cancer is advanced. If a breast tumor is found to be cancerous after a biopsy, treatment for the cancer begins. If you do feel a breast tumor or cyst, whether it is painful or not, you should see a doctor for a breast examination. It may be obvious to the doctor that the lump is a cyst and a biopsy may not be necessary, or they may want to check it out further just to be safe.
When the cause of breast pain is not breast cancer, the pain is usually treated symptomatically. Sometimes, taking birth control pills can help with cyclic breast pain. Breast cysts that are causing discomfort can be drained of fluid to reduce their size if necessary. Sometimes, occasional use of over-the-counter pain relievers is enough to keep breast pain under control. If you have severe pain, see a doctor instead of using over-the-counter medications, because these medications can cause severe side effects if used too much. Prescription medications exist that can help with severe breast pain, but it is rare that the benefits of taking these medications for breast pain relief outweighs the risks.