Breast pain is common among women, accounting for 45 – 70% of breast-related health care visits in the United States. But the fact that many of us have experienced breast pain doesn’t make it any less confusing or scary. At best, breast tenderness is an uncomfortable nuisance, and at worst, it can be a sign of a more serious underlying health issue.
So what can be done to alleviate breast pain? And how do you know whether what you’re feeling is normal, versus something you should get checked out by a doctor? Here are some guidelines on different common types of pain, and tips to help you manage sore breasts.
What causes pain in the breast?
There can be a number of causes behind breast pain and tenderness, from hormones to cysts to breastfeeding. But before diagnosing your breast pain, it helps to specifically define the discomfort you’re feeling. What type of pain is it? Heavy and aching, or tight and burning? Do you feel this sensation in both breasts, or one? Is the pain regularly occurring every month, or more sporadic? The answers to these questions can help you and your healthcare provider pinpoint the cause behind your breast pain, and offer potential solutions.
Breast tenderness before ovulation
The single most common type of breast pain is linked to your menstrual cycle. This type of pain is cyclical, meaning women who experience it tend to feel it around a certain time every month. For some women, breast tenderness starts around ovulation and may continue until their next period starts. Cyclical breast tenderness tied to your menstrual cycle is usually caused by hormones, but there may be exceptions, particularly if you experience more pain in one breast, rather than equally in both.
Tracking your full menstrual cycle throughout the month can help you identify patterns and get a more detailed picture of your particular symptoms. A detailed journal, whether written down daily in a notebook, or tracked in an app like Clue, can help your doctor make sense of your cyclical pain and recommend the appropriate treatment.
Breast pain during pregnancy
Another condition typically caused by hormone fluctuations, breast changes can happen as soon as you become pregnant. In fact, a sore chest is one of the early signs that signal to some women that they’re expecting, much like morning sickness or a missed period. Again, the range of discomfort can vary widely among pregnant women, and tenderness can be accompanied by other symptoms as your breasts grow and change, like itching, darkening of the nipples, and stretch marks. All of these symptoms are normal signs that your body is preparing for breasts for lactation, and the arrival of your new baby.
A more supportive bra can help you feel more comfortable throughout your pregnancy, and maternity shops carry bras made especially to provide additional comfort and support. Talk to your OB-GYN if your breast changes become extremely uncomfortable, or if you encounter a new lump.
If your nipples in particular are sore, there can be multiple reasons. The skin around your nipples is especially sensitive, so much so that even loose clothing can cause chafing and sensitivity. Like other types of breast pain, sore nipples can be cyclical — coming and going along with your period — or non cyclical. Pregnant women and new mothers are particularly prone to nipple pain, since both hormonal changes and breastfeeding can cause nipples to swell, chafe or crack. If the pain in your nipples becomes severe, seek medical attention right away, since this could be the sign of an infection requiring antibiotics.
When to go to the doctor
It’s not always easy to tell when breast tenderness warrants medical attention. However, if you notice a change in breast size or shape, dimpling of the breast skin, a rash or discharge, or an unfamiliar lump, make an appointment to get it checked out with your doctor as soon as possible. Breast pain of any sort that becomes debilitating and interferes with your daily life is also a good reason to seek professional care.