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Common causes of breast pain in women

Medically reviewed by William Ross Perlman, PhD, CMPP on January 10, 2020. Written by Caitlin Boyd. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Whether it’s a sharp pain in the breast that comes and goes, or a lingering sensation that doesn’t go away for a while, any kind of breast pain can leave you wondering why you’re having it in the first place. To help get you closer to an answer, here we’ll cover some common causes of breast pain in women—plus other information on breast pain you might find useful.

(But first, one quick note: if you’re experiencing breast pain, make it a point to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider and/or OB/GYN so they can advise you on any recommended next steps.)

Common causes of breast pain

Menstruation

During the menstrual cycle, fluctuating hormone levels may cause a woman’s breasts to swell or feel tender during the luteal phase. (This phase of the menstrual cycle starts after ovulation and, if fertilization doesn’t occur, typically goes on for about two weeks.) These hormone changes—which may include a low level of progesterone —can trigger breast pain. The pain often subsides when one’s period begins.


Learn how your hormone levels change throughout your cycle with the at-home Women’s Health Test.


Breast cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can appear anywhere in the body. They often develop in breast tissue, and are especially common in women who are transitioning towards menopause. If you have a large breast cyst, you may experience breast pain.

Most cysts are benign, but your healthcare provider may recommend removing the cyst to relieve the pain and check for signs of infection or potentially cancerous cells. After the cyst is removed, your provider may prescribe hormone medications, which can prevent your cyst from returning.

Pregnancy

Sore, tender breasts are often the first sign of pregnancy. Breast tenderness can appear as early as one to two weeks after conception. Sometimes, breast pain disappears after a few weeks—but many women continue to experience breast pain throughout their pregnancy.

Breastfeeding

After giving birth, a woman’s breasts may swell rapidly due to an increase in milk production. This process can sometimes be painful. If you recently gave birth, your OB/GYN can help you manage your breast pain, and may recommend home remedies to help you feel more comfortable.

Breast pain can sometimes continue until you wean your child. Occasional pain is normal when you're still breastfeeding. But if you experience a fever, chills, or a sensation of heat around your breast, you might have an infection known as mastitis, which sometimes requires medical care —so be sure to bring this up to your healthcare provider if you notice these symptoms.

Perimenopause

Hormone changes associated with perimenopause (the menopausal transition) can result in breast soreness in some women. Some perimenopausal women also experience mood changes, insomnia, and/or weight gain.


With the at-home Perimenopause Test, you can easily check key hormones (including estrogen) that may indicate if you’re approaching menopause.


Breast tumors

If you're experiencing mastalgia for the first time, you may worry you have breast cancer. Keep in mind that most breast pain is not linked to cancer. Still, it's best to report your pain to your healthcare provider who can help determine whether you need a cancer screening.

Some women may develop mastalgia due to a benign breast lump. Benign lumps are noncancerous, and they're usually not harmful to your health. Your provider can determine whether you need surgery to remove the tumor.

Cancer

Breast pain isn't a common symptom of breast cancer. But it's best to report any new or worsening breast pain to your healthcare provider just to be sure—and let them know if you’ve noticed:

  • Breast lumps
  • Discharge from your nipple
  • Pitted or dimpled skin on your breasts
  • Reddened or thickened skin
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Acid reflux

If you experience recurring pain in the chest area, your symptoms may have nothing to do with your breasts. Instead, you could have acid reflux. Pain caused by acid reflux is often located in the center of your chest. You might also notice a sore throat or a foul taste in your mouth. If you regularly experience acid reflux, your healthcare provider may recommend medication or dietary changes to alleviate symptoms.

Seeking medical care for breast pain

If you have breast pain, your healthcare provider may begin by performing a breast exam to identify lumps or swelling in your breast tissue.

Depending on your age and medical history, your provider might suggest a mammogram or ultrasound. These tests screen for tumors, cysts, or inflammation.

Keep in mind that most cases of breast pain are not a sign of cancer. If you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or approaching menopause, hormonal changes may very well be the culprit. In cases where a hormone imbalance is responsible for breast pain, a healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help even out hormone levels.

Common questions about breast pain

What causes breast pain?

Breast pain is often caused by hormonal changes. These changes can occur during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or menopause. More rarely, breast pain may be a sign of cancer or a serious infection. In any case—whatever the cause of the discomfort could be—it’s a good idea to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider.

What symptoms are linked to breast pain?

The symptoms of breast pain can vary. Some women report that their breasts feel swollen or tender. Others may feel stabbing or sharp breast pain. Your pain may be constant, or it may come and go.

How is breast pain treated?

Several different conditions can potentially cause breast pain, but many cases are linked to hormonal changes. To treat this cause of breast pain, a healthcare provider may suggest taking oral contraceptives or other hormone medications.


Conveniently check 10 key hormones that affect women’s health with our at-home hormone test for women.


References

1. Menstrual Cycle. Merck Manual. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

2. Kataria K, Dhar A, Srivastava A, Kumar S, Goyal A. A systematic review of current understanding and management of mastalgia. Indian J Surg. 2014;76(3):217-222. doi:10.1007/s12262-013-0813-8

3. Common Benign Lumps. Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

4. Santen RJ. Benign Breast Disease in Women. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000. Available from: URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

5. Pregnancy Symptoms – Early Signs of Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

6. Mastitis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

7. Dennerstein L, Dudley EC, Hopper JL, Guthrie JR, Burger HG. A prospective population-based study of menopausal symptoms. Obstet Gynecol. 2000;96(3):351-358. doi:10.1016/s0029-7844(00)00930-3

8. Perimenopause. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

9. Breast pain. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

10. Breast cancer. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

11. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.