Most women develop breast pain at some stage in life. In most cases the pain develops in the days just before a period. In some cases the pain is not related to periods. The pain is often mild but in some women it is more severe and can affect the quality of your life. Treatment options include painkillers and rub-on (topical) anti-inflammatory drugs.
Breast pain (mastalgia) is usually classed as either:
Up to 7 in 10 women develop breast pain at some stage in their life. About 2 in 3 cases are cyclical breast pain, and about 1 in 3 are non-cyclical. If you are not sure which type of breast pain you have, it may be worth keeping a pain diary for 2-3 months. Record the days when you have breast pain, and highlight the days when the pain is severe enough to affect your lifestyle. See what pattern emerges.
Cyclical breast pain is very common. It can first occur at any age after periods start, but most commonly first develops between the ages of 30 and 50 years. It does not occur in women past the menopause when the periods have stopped.
In many women the symptoms are mild. Indeed, it can be considered normal to have some breast discomfort for a few days before a period. However, in around one in ten women the pain can be severe and/or last longer - up to 1-2 weeks before a period. The 3-5 days prior to a period are usually the worst. The pain usually eases soon after a period starts. The severity usually varies from month to month. Typically, the pain affects both breasts. It is usually worst in the upper and outer part of the breast, and may travel to the inner part of the upper arm.
Your breasts may also feel more swollen and lumpy than usual. This lumpiness is generalised so does not lead to a single definite lump forming. This swelling and lumpiness then improve soon after your period starts.
Quality of life for some women can be significantly affected. Physical activity such as jogging can make the pain worse. Such things as hugging children and sexual activity can be painful.
It is thought that women with cyclical breast pain have breast tissue which is more sensitive than usual to the normal hormonal changes that occur each month. It is not due to any hormone disease or to any problem in the breast itself. It is not related to any other breast conditions. Although it is not serious, it can be a nuisance.
No treatment may be needed if the symptoms are mild. Many women are reassured by knowing that cyclical breast pain is not a symptom of cancer or serious breast disease. The problem may settle by itself within 3-6 months. Studies have shown that cyclical breast pain goes away within three months of onset in about 3 in 10 cases. However, in up to 6 in 10 women where the pain has gone, it develops again sometime within two years. So, in other words, cyclical breast pain may come and go over the years.
If the pain is more severe, or for the times when it may flare up worse than usual, treatment options include the following:
Note: in the past, water tablets (diuretics) used to be popular. However, they do not work, as the pain is not caused by fluid retention.
Breast pain can be present all the time, or come and go in a random way. This type of breast pain is not related to periods and is most common in women aged over 40. The pain may be in just one breast, and may be localised to one area in a breast. Sometimes the pain is felt all over one or both breasts. There are various causes; for example:
As there are various causes, it is best to see a doctor for assessment.
In many cases the pain goes after a few months without any treatment. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen may ease the pain. Rub-on (topical) NSAIDs may also work. Other treatments may be appropriate, depending on whether a cause is found.
Women with breast pain often worry that the pain is caused by breast cancer. However, the first symptom of breast cancer is usually a painless lump. Pain is not usually an early symptom.
However, even though breast pain is not likely to be caused by cancer, you should see your doctor if you have any concerns about breast pain or any other breast symptoms.
In particular, see a doctor promptly if you have breast pain and any of the following: