The mammary glands, or breasts, are actually modified sebaceous glands (sweat) that are designed to secrete milk. On average, each breast weighs 200-300 g. They are composed of glandular tissue, fat, and supporting or stromal tissue. Each breast is organized into 12-25 triangular shaped lobes. Each lobe is composed of several smaller lobules. The breast lobules are linked by a collecting duct system which is responsible for the passage of milk. The spaces between the lobules are filled with fatty tissue. This intricate duct system terminates in the central portion of the breast, the areola or nipple area.
Pathologic (disease) changes may occur in any of the breast tissue. For example, the fat tissue in the breasts may actually necrose, or die, in response to trauma. Additionally, the stromal or support tissue of the breasts may give rise to fibrocystic changes, or benign solid tumors, called fibroadenomas. Breast cancer may also develop in any part of the breast.
Breast tissue responds to hormonal changes. Pain and swelling may occur prior to menstruation. Additionally, certain medications, particularly hormonal medications such as oral contraceptives, may also cause changes in the breasts. Early in pregnancy, the breasts prepare for lactation and may become tender and enlarged. After delivery, the breast tissue engorges to prepare for breast-feeding. When a woman chooses not to breast-feed or when she weans her infant, engorgement (swelling due to milk accumulation) may cause pain, and even a low-grade fever. The pain usually responds well to mild pain medications and cold compresses, and will usually resolve in approximately 2 weeks.
As women age, breast pain often diminishes. Hormone replacement therapy, however, may trigger pain in postmenopausal women.
SEE ALSO: Breast-feeding, Mammography, Mastectomy, Mastitis, Pregnancy
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