Should I Be Worried About Breast Pain?

| Posted On Jan 07, 2013 | By:

Breast pain, or mastalgia, is very common. Research indicates that nearly 70% of women will experience breast pain at some point in their lives. Breast pain can occur at all ages and stages of life, although it is most commonly seen in women entering the peri-menopausal phase.

Breast pain is rarely a symptom of breast cancer. While the exact cause of breast pain is not known, many of the factors likely center around hormonal fluctuations.  However, if breast pain is accompanied by redness or lumps, it could be a sign of infection, and you should make an appointment with your health care provider.

Below are the two main types of breast pain and some recommended treatments and remedies to alleviate the symptoms.

Types of Breast Pain

Cyclic Pain: This is the most common type of breast pain. It may be caused by normal monthly changes in hormones associated with the menstrual cycle and often appears in both breasts. It is described as a heaviness or soreness that radiates under the arm and is sometimes accompanied by swelling. The duration is extremely variable from woman to woman.  For most women, it starts a week or two before her menstrual cycle and dissipates to go away after the menstrual period ends.  For some women, it can last longer. It usually improves after menopause. One way to tell if your breast pain is related to your menstrual cycle is to keep a calendar of the days you experience pain, including the intensity in relation to your menstrual period.

Non-Cyclic Pain: This type of pain is most common in women ages 30-50.  It may occur in only one breast and is usually described as a sharp or burning pain that can be felt in one area of the breast.  Other causes of pain that may feel like they are in the breast but are actually in other structures may be due to pinched nerves, back pain, or inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs called “costochondritis.”

Imaging for Breast Pain

Women with breast pain who have a normal breast exam do not need diagnostic imaging as long as their regular imaging is up to date.

If a mass, skin changes, swelling, or nipple discharge is present, then diagnostic imaging with a mammogram and/or ultrasound is in order. MRI’s are usually not indicated for breast pain alone.

Treatment of Breast Pain

The good news is that most patients can be reassured that their breast pain is not due to serious medical conditions. The bad news is that there is not one quick fix to improve the symptoms. Breast pain can usually be tempered by lifestyle modifications as well as medications.

Lifestyle Modifications

Over the Counter and Prescription Medications


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About Dr. Claire Cronin

Dr. Cronin is a board-certified breast surgeon, chief of breast services, and associate chair of surgical specialties who joined Atrius Health in 2016. She received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine and completed her internship at New England Deaconess Hospital and her residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. Since joining Atrius Health, she has established a high-risk breast clinic that oversees patients who are at risk of developing breast cancer. Dr. Cronin and her department work closely with the oncology, radiology, pathology, and genetics departments on projects to improve the multidisciplinary team approach for patients with breast cancer.

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