Does Breast Pain Always Mean Something Bad?

Although there isn’t a moment in our lives that “the girls” aren’t by our side (or rather on our front), on most days we are unaware of their presence. Sure, we have the daily AM bra conversation with ourselves…what color, what material, strapless vs. racer-back, but in reality we spend a very modest amount of time paying attention to our breasts. This is except when one or both starts to hurt.

Breast pain makes us say, hmm, what could that be? And while most of the time our mind goes to that scary place, the majority of breast pain is totally benign. Let us unveil the A, B, C, and Ds (and maybe even the double A or double Ds) of breast pain with these basic facts.

A: Breast pain is one of the most common reasons women visit their GYNs.

B: The medical term for breast pain is mastalgia.

C: The easiest way to figure out what is bothering your breasts is to break out your calendar. Pain that moves with your menses (a.k.a. changes throughout the menstrual cycle) is considered cyclic. Cyclic breast pain is almost always caused by hormonal changes. Pain that comes on any calendar day (a.k.a. is constant) is considered noncyclic. Noncyclic breast pain is almost never caused by hormonal changes.

D: There are other structures (think of your muscles and your ribs) that are “roomies” with your breasts. Their close proximity to the breast can often masquerade as breast pain. So problems such as trauma to the chest, a fracture of the ribs, herpes, reflux, inflammation of the cartilage connecting the ribs, and angina make one think one’s breasts are in big-time trouble—when in reality they are nothing more than innocent bystanders!

Getting into the nitty gritty of it (or the double As and Ds as we like to say), hormonal or cyclic breast pain can occur from any medication that is either made from or modifies your hormones. Think OCPs (or any form of hormonal contraception), fertility medications, and medications used to treat abnormal vaginal bleeding.

When it comes to noncyclic breast pain, hormones are not the issue. While the breast is involved, the pain has nothing to do with your period. Think of things like trauma, infection, cysts, tumors, and cancers. Therefore, non-cyclic breast pain, specifically when it is in one breast, is intense, and is getting worse, makes us a bit more nervous. It definitely needs to be checked out.

In most cases, pain prompts a physical exam and an in-person chat: when did the pain start, what makes it better or worse, how often does it occur, and what where you doing when you felt it first? Depending on what these initial evaluations show, your doctor may decide to send you for a mammogram, a breast ultrasound, and/or an MRI. But because most breast pain winds up being no big deal (not cancer), the best thing to do is take a deep breath: it will very likely be okay. After this, it is not a bad idea to consider changing your bra (more supportive, better fitting) and changing your diet (less salt, caffeine, and fat). These modifications might just do the trick.

When nothing works, you may need to move on to medications. Starting an OCP or changing your OCP can help alleviate cyclic breast pain. Additionally, lowering the dose of a hormonal medication can also be helpful. Last, if the pain is non-cyclic and related to the muscles of the chest, an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen or Advil can certainly do the trick.  

Your breasts are sort of a big deal, no matter what size you are. And when they don’t feel right, you want to look into what’s making them hurt. While the pain is most likely from normal hormonal ebbs and flows, this is not a tide you should just watch roll in and roll out. Go looking for the lifeguard (your GYN) to make sure you weather this storm safely. It may be a pain (no pun intended), but it will keep you and your breasts protected.