Breast pain is also called mastalgia in medical terms. It’s quite common. Almost 50% of women report breast pain, and it could be severe in less than half of the cases. The breasts may normally feel painful to touch just before the menses and in early pregnancy, and these are caused by normal hormonal changes.
There are two main types of breast pain namely cyclical and non-cyclical breast pain. A third category is a chest wall pain which mimics breast pain. The former is very common and is worst just before the menses.
Non-cyclical breast pain is however not linked to the periods, so the breasts feel painful some of the time, or even constantly. Usually, the cause is unknown, but sometimes, an infection in the breast from abrasions or cracks in the nipple may cause pain. In that case, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Many women worry that breast pain means they have breast cancer. But only less than 10% of women with breast cancer complain only of breast pain. The doctor should be able to confirm whether or not the breast pain is due to a cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Cyclical breast pain occurs in both breasts, and every part of the breasts feels heavy or aching. It usually starts two weeks before menstruation and may get worse during menstruation before it starts subsiding.
Non-cyclical breast pain usually occurs only on one breast. It can last for a long time, and is burning or dragging in nature. It can occur in both women of childbearing age as well as those who have attained menopause. You may want to see your doctor urgently if you have discharge from the nipples; if you feel feverish and the breast is warm or red, or if you notice any new lump in the breast.
What treatments work?
If no cause is found, and the breast pain is not severe or so much of an inconvenience, no treatment may be needed. You may only need to get a properly fitting bra, or one with more support especially when you exercise to avoid straining the breast so much. Avoiding coffee or stress may also help reduce this pain.
Painkilling gels or lotions are both generally effective and safe for breast pain. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and diclofenac. However, side effects may occur which include skin itch and blister formation, and these products are not safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Severe breast pain may benefit from hormonal treatment. They can reduce pain, but they often cause side effects, which might be difficult to tolerate. These medicines are only got with prescription, and include danazol, gestrinone and goserelin. You’ll usually be offered this treatment only if you get severe breast pain and other treatments haven’t helped.
Diets and supplements haven’t been proven to work for breast pain, and taking some of these supplements for a long time may actually be harmful.
What will happen to me?
Breast pain may only sometimes be severe enough to disrupt your day-to-day activities. At other times, it could just be managed without drugs, and often goes away on its own without any treatment. But it may come back again. Non-cyclical breast pain seems to go away on its own more often than breast pain associated with menstruation. About 80% of women with breast pain decide not to have treatment.