Breast pain and its possible causes

November 12, 2012

Breast pain can be caused by anything from menstruation to sleeping in an awkward position along with things like mastitis if you are breastfeeding.

Breast pain and its possible causes

Breast pain is a very common complaint and has a number of possible causes. Pain may occur in either or both the breasts and may radiate into the armpit; the pain may be extremely mild in some patients and chronically severe in others and does not always require treatment. Generally speaking breast pain is not a sign or symptom of breast cancer.

Related to the menstrual cycle

A pattern of pain recognised and associated with the menstrual cycle of the patient may be related to changes in hormone levels. It is very common for women to feel breast pain and tenderness before the start of their menstrual period and for this discomfort to decrease or disappear once the period has finished. Some women may also notice lumpiness in the breast at this time as a result of a fibrocystic condition. A woman experiencing high levels of stress may also experience increased breast pain as stress is also known to affect hormone levels.

Unrelated to the menstrual cycle

Women of any age may experience ‘target zone’ breast pain. This type of pain occurs in a specific area of one or both of the breasts and may last as long as two years before dissipating.

Occasionally this type of ‘target zone’ pain may be caused by trauma or may occur at the site of a previous medical procedure such as a biopsy. However, in most cases this pain is determined to be idiopathic and, once the possibility of breast cancer has been ruled out, will be left to disappear on its own.


Originating in the chest

This type of breast pain occurs rather in the chest but appears to originate in the chest. Poor posture and the aging process can contribute to increased stress on the rib and breastbone joints causing arthritic pain known as costochondritis. This pain occurs in the centre of the chest and does not change in relation to the menstrual cycle.


Diagnosis and evaluation

When a patient reports the presence of pain in the breast area to their medical practitioner an evaluation process will be carried out. The location and pattern of the pain will be identified as will its level and duration. The medical practitioner will want to establish whether the breast pain affects quality of life or whether it interferes with the day to day routine of the patient. An evaluation may included one or all of the following -

  • Recording of a full medical history

  • Physical examination

  • Mammogram

  • Ultrasound scan

  • Chest X-ray

  • Rarely a surgical biopsy will be recommended

For most patients the purpose of this type of assessment is to offer reassurance that the cause of the pain is not breast cancer.


  • Medication – generally medication is only required if the pain is disabling and severe. For arthritic chest pain anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed, however the side effects associated with many pain relief medications means that it is wise to attempt to relieve the condition by other methods

  • Lifestyle changes – all women should ensure that their bras are correctly sized and fitted; wearing an ill-fitting bra is a known risk factor for breast pain. A supportive bra which has been correctly fitted will limit excess breast movement and reduce pain. Any women suffering from high levels of stress – which affects hormone levels, a known risk factor for pains in the breasts – may benefit from learning relaxation techniques such as meditation and visualization. An exercise program also has many benefits.

  • Although there is no conclusive evidence that dietary changes are beneficial in reducing breast pain anecdotal reports suggest that some changes may be of some benefit

    • Reduce caffeine intake

    • Reduce dietary fat

    • Increase fresh fruit and vegetable intake

    • Reduce salt intake

    • Increase whole grain intake

    • Use of supplements such as Vitamin E, Vitamin B6 and/or Evening Primrose Oil



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