Battling with breast pain and not sure what's causing it? Breast pain, also know as mastalgia, is a common condition that affects up to two-thirds of women in the UK - for a variety of reasons. While breast pain can be extremely uncomfortable, the good news is it's usually nothing serious.
We speak to Grete Brauten-Smith, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, Dr Joanna Scurr from the Department of Sport and Exercise Health at Portsmouth University and Marilyn Glenville, a nutritionist specialising in women's health, about the most common causes of breast pain and how to reduce discomfort:
Breast pain and breast cancer
First things first, if you suffer from unexplained breast pain does this mean you could have breast cancer? While it is important to get your breasts checked if you come across any lumps or bumps, if your chest is sore cancer is unlikely to be the cause.
'A lot of our callers who have breast pain are worried about it being breast cancer,' says Brauten-Smith. 'I would certainly advise that breast pain alone is not usually a sign of breast cancer, and it's much more likely to be due to something else.'
1. Hormonal breast pain
Right before your period, your breasts can ache, feel swollen and tender. 'This is because in the days leading up to your menstrual cycle, your hormones will change and your oestrogen will increase', says Brauten-Smith.
'Pain linked to the menstrual cycle is known as a 'cyclical' form of breast pain, meaning that it occurs on a regular schedule, and as many as two out of three women will actually experience this at some time.'
2. Stress and breast pain
If you experience breast pain at unusual times in your cycle, this could be stress-related. 'Certainly both stress and anxiety are linked to breast pain, says Brauten-Smith. 'Emotional stress can effect hormones, no matter where you are in your cycle.'
3. Fibrocystic breast disease
Over the course of the menstrual cycle it's completely normal to experience sore breasts, as changes take place in your breast tissue when your body is preparing for the possibility that you will conceive. However, sometimes these changes lead to soreness or excessive lumpiness. The good news is that the pain usually disappear when your period ends.
'This discomfort is called fibrocystic breast disease and is completely benign,' explains Glenville. 'Symptoms are typically worse before your period but they can extend into the period as well and include swollen, tender breasts, and one or more lumps.'
'Breast pain is actually much more likely to be due to a benign lump or something which isn't cancer,' adds Brauten-Smith. 'All women have lumpy breasts (fibrocystic breasts) and many lumps or nodules that women find are areas of normal breast tissue, which can become more prominent and lumpy just before a period.'
💡 If breast pain is really bothering you, Brauten-Smith recommends that you take paracetamol or ibuprofen, the same as you would take for period pain or a headache.
4. Perimenopause or menopause breast pain
Women often experience breast pain when they go through the menopause, because this transition involves fluctuating hormones which can affect the breasts.
'Women who are taking hormone replacement therapy often have sore breasts,' says Brauten-Smith. 'This is another cyclical pain, as tissue in the breasts are responding to hormones.'
5. Exercise and breast pain
Working out in the gym or any type of high-impact exercise can potentially cause breast pain, especially if you are new to it or you haven't warmed up properly.
Be particularly aware that if you have been doing physical activity that puts strain on the chest, shoulders or pectoral muscles, such as heavy lifting or push-ups, this may actually be muscular pain, says Brauten-Smith.
'Breasts aren't made of muscle; only skin and delicate Cooper's ligaments support our breast tissue,' says Dr Scurr, who has done a range of studies on breast health. 'Bouncing and exercising without the right bra puts strain on these ligaments, leading to stretching and sagging, but also aches and pains,' adds Scurr.
💟 More than 70 per cent of women experience breast pain either during or after exercise. Wearing a well-fitted sports bra can reduce or even eliminate the ache.
6. Are you wearing the wrong size bra?
A study by Portsmouth University has found that 80 per cent of women are wearing the wrong bra size (stats revealed that 70 per cent wear one that is too small and 10 per cent one that's too big).
There are several signs that your bra isn't fitting correctly:
✔️ It feels uncomfortable/painful/noticeable.
✔️ The straps slide off or dig into your shoulders.
✔️ Your breasts are bulging out of the top of the cups and the underwire (if you have one) doesn't lay flat against your body.
Wearing the wrong size bra can lead to trauma to the breast tissue, leaving your breasts sore and aching, so always get your everyday bras and sports bras fitted by a professional. 'Many of us are wearing underwired bras, and this is absolutely fine as long as they are well fitted,' says Brauten-Smith. 'But finding an underwired bra to fit well can actually take some effort.'
7. Breast infection
Breast infection most commonly affects women between the ages of 18 and 50, but is much less common than it used to be. Breast infection can be split into two groups - those which occur in women who are breastfeeding and that which occurs spontaneously.
The first symptoms of breast infection are pain, swelling, redness and tenderness. You may start to feel unwell, almost as if you have the flu with a raised temperature, general aches and pains and a headache. The condition can usually be easily treated with antibiotics, but you should see a doctor if you are concerned that you might have an infected breast.
What can you do about breast pain?
If you're concerned about breast pain, visit your GP to get it checked out. Brauten-Smith also recommends using a pain chart.
'We often ask people to consider using a pain chart, as then you can get a better idea if it's linked to your period or perhaps it has happened after going to the gym,' she says. 'That kind of information can be really helpful, especially if you are waiting for an appointment. You can access a pain chart online at Breast Cancer Care.'
Dietary changes and breast pain
There are a few dietary changes you can make which may help to reduce or eliminate breast pain. Glenville recommends the following:
• Skip methylxanthines
These are substances found in coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, decaffeinated coffee and certain medications and they have been shown to cause breast discomfort, so try cutting these out of your diet where possible and track any changes.
• Don't forget your omega 3 fats
Eat foods which contain omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, as it can ease symptoms of breast pain by helping to balance levels of prostaglandins, substances which can cause breast inflammation. You can also take an omega 3 fish oil supplement.
• Eat a low saturated fat diet
If you're in frequent pain following a low saturated dat diet is recommended, as a high intake of saturated fat can increase oestrogen levels in your body.
• Eat your fibre
Fibre can help with breast pain because it removes excess hormones from your body. Make sure that you are having at least one helping of whole grains and two servings of vegetables a day.
Last updated: 09-10-19
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