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Breast pain | The 3 types of breast pain and their causes

01 September, 2017
Woman holding her chest

A simple guide to breast pain

Breast pain (also known as mastalgia) in women is very common, with around 70% of women experiencing breast pain at some time in their lives. It effects vary, and can, in some cases, make basic functions like getting dressed, walking and simple acts of intimacy very uncomfortable.

The first step in beating or managing breast pain is understanding why you’re experiencing it – so let’s find out why’s, how’s, and what-to-do-about-its of breast pain.

But just before we do, let’s take care of one important fact:

Breast pain and cancer

Breast pain is not generally a symptom of breast cancer.

There are many reasons you might be experiencing breast pain, but breast cancer is not likely to be one of them. More likely signs of breast cancer are lumps, itchy or warm breasts, skin thickening or redness, or inflammation around the breast, collarbone or armpit. If you have any concerns, you should always consult a doctor or specialist.

The three types of breast pain

The three types of breast pain

 

What are some causes of breast pain?

The wrong bra

It can be this simple – knowing the ins and outs of how your bra and your breasts work together can save you a lot of trouble, especially if you require your bra to perform a specific function (help with sport etc). Most underwear specific clothing stores should have staff members that can direct you to the right size and fit for your bust.

Your period

One symptom of premenstrual syndrome is the swelling and tenderness of the breasts. Pain can range in severity, though it’s usually on the lower end of the spectrum.

What causes it? During the hormonal changes cause by menstruation, oestrogenactivates the breast ducts to enlarge (mid cycle) and progesterone triggers the milk glands to swell (around a week before your period begins).

Menopause

Menopause is another process of hormonal change, and affects breast pain in the same way your period does (oestrogen and menstruation).

Heart disease

Inflictions on the heart can cause extramammary pain.

How does it happen? Heart problems affect the chest wall, giving the impression that it’s the breasts, and not the heart, that’s actually the source of the problem.

What’s the treatment for heart related breast pain? Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in Australia, and is caused by a whole range of issues. However, decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease is simple – get some exercise, eat more fruit and veg, and consume less alcohol and sugar.

Fibrocystic breast disease

Fibrocystic breast disease materialises as painful lumps in the breast, and is not uncommon – in fact, over 50% of women will experience a case in their lifetime.

How does it happen? While the direct cause isn’t known, it’s believed that it’s related to hormone fluctuations during menstruation.

Stress

During particularly harsh periods of anxiety, pressure and stress, you can experience breast pain.

What causes it? While the science isn’t in on the 'why', once again it seems to come back to hormonal fluctuations. Research has found correlations between the impact of stress and oestrogen levels, meaning that increased stress during a specific time during the menstrual cycle could cause excess discomfort.

What’s the treatment for stress related breast pain? Simple – don’t stress! However, if you come from planet earth and it isn’t that simple, this level of impact on your health from stress is worth seeing a doctor about. We've got a few tips on managing anxiety to check out.

Caffeine

Your morning brew might be the culprit behind your breast pain, but unfortunately, we’re still not sure why.

What do we know so far? In a study on women with pain associated with fibrocystic breast disease, a reduction in the amount of caffeine consumed led to less breast pain.

How can I use this information? Trialling a few less coffees a day or week could yield beneficial results. If the idea of not having coffee is a terrifying prospect, switching to decaf or a strong, black tea could be a satisfactory substitute.

Breast cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that are normally harmless, and are usually identified as a lump.

What causes it? Hormonal changes due to menstruation are the most common causes of breast cysts. Cysts in general can be caused by blocked ducts, defect cells, popped blood vessels or, in rare cases, parasites.

What’s the treatment for breast cysts? Depending on the severity of the cyst, it might be best to simply leave it. If the cyst is causing discomfort or pain, a doctor will drain it and attempt to remove the sac so it doesn’t refill.

Costochondritis

An extramammary pain that starts in the ribs and ‘spreads’ its pain into the breasts.

What is costochondritis? Costochondritis is inflammation of the costal cartilages – the cartilage the connects the ribs to the breastbone.

What causes it? Unfortunately, there’s no obvious cause for most cases, but it can be related to chest injuries, excessive or forceful coughing, physical strain, infection or a tumour.

What’s the treatment for costochondritis? Rest is the first, best thing to do. Avoiding heavy lifting, applying heat, stretching and taking anti-inflammatories can help easy pain.

It’s always best to consult your GP if the pain is giving you cause to worry or is affecting your daily life.

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

Sources used for this section:
Healthline: Premenstrual breast tenderness and swelling

Better Health Vic: Cysts, conditions and treatments

National Breast Cancer Org: Breast cysts

Hopkins Medicine Org: Mastalgia

CMPC.org: About breast pain

Harvard Health Education: Breast pain; not just a premenopausal complaint

HealthDirect.gov.au: costochondritis

Mayoclinic.org: Fibrocystic breasts

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