By Dr. Priyanka Singh, Gynaecology
How common is breast pain?
Breast pain is very common and it affects women of all ages. Two out of three women will have breast pain at some time in their lives. Like any other breast problem, it can be worrying, but on its own it is not usually a sign of breast cancer.
There are two types of breast pain: Pain related to the menstrual cycle (cyclical breast pain) or unrelated to your cycle (non cyclical breast pain).
What is cyclical breast pain?
Cyclical breast pain is linked to changing hormone levels during the menstrual cycle and so affects women before the menopause. Women may have discomfort or lumpiness in their breast/ breasts up to a week before their period. Pain can be mild to severe and the breasts can be sore to touch. The pain can affect either one or both breasts and can spread to the armpit, down the arm and to the shoulder blade. This type of pain usually stops when the ovaries are no longer active after the menopause. However women taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after the menopause can also experience breast pain.
Cyclical breast pain can also be linked to taking the contraceptive pill, certain antidepressant drugs, stress and some herbal remedies. It typically affects women in their 30s-40s. It is often described as ‘dull’, ‘heavy’ and ‘achy’.
What is non- cyclical breast pain?
Non-cyclical breast pain is breast pain that is not linked to the menstrual cycle. It may be related to non-cancerous (benign) conditions, previous breast surgery or other medical conditions not related to the breast It usually affects women in their 40s-50s and tends to be one-sided and localised within one section of the breast. It is often described as ‘burning’, ‘drawing’, ‘achy’ and ‘sore’.
Chest wall/musculoskeletal pain:
The nerves that supply sensation to the breast leave the spinal cord at the upper part of the thoracic spine, run around the outside of the chest wall and then up into the breasts. Therefore irritation of these nerves anywhere along their course can lead to pain that is felt in the breast or nipple.
Chest wall pain tends to be:
• brought on by activity
• experienced at the extremities of the breast
• reproduced by pressure on a specific area of the chest wall.
The tests that you may be sent for are:
• a mammogram (an x-ray of the breast)
• an ultrasound.
What can I do about breast pain?
Some lifestyle changes may help your pain. These include reducing your intake of caffeine, chocolate and red wine, increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables you eat and taking regular exercise to help maintain a healthy weight.
Wearing a correctly fitting bra at night as well as during the day may also help. If your pain started when you began taking the contraceptive pill, you maybe advised to change to a low-dose pill or a different type of pill or contraceptive.