Breast Pain

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Introduction

What is breast pain?

Breast pain includes any type of pain or discomfort that occurs in your breasts, including the nipples and areolas. Breast pain can affect women and men in any age group or population. Breast pain may be described in a variety of ways, such as tenderness, aching or burning. Breast pain can occur in one or both breasts at the same time.

Breast pain can vary in character and intensity depending on the underlying cause and individual factors. It can be constant or may be felt only when you examine or massage your breast. Breast pain can gradually build over weeks or months if a painful lump forms slowly, or it can appear suddenly, such as can occur with mastitis or injury to the breast.

Your breasts will undergo normal changes over the course of your life in size, shape, consistency and appearance. Hormonal changes are a common cause of breast pain and other breast symptoms. Hormonal changes can occur at the onset of puberty; during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause and menopause; and with the use of hormone medications.

Breast pain can also be caused by physical changes, such as weight fluctuations, or other causes, such as breast injury and breast surgery. Breast pain can also occur due to cancer and other diseases, disorders and conditions, such as breast infections, breast adenosis, and cysts.

Seek prompt medical care if you have unexplained breast pain or changes in one or both breasts. Left undetected and untreated, some underlying causes of breast pain, such as mastitis and breast cancer, can lead to life-threatening complications. Seeking regular medical care throughout your life improves your chances of discovering serious diseases at their earliest, most curable stages.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with breast pain?

Breast pain may occur by itself or with other symptoms. Some signs of breast problems may only be evident through medical testing, so seek regular medical care if you have breast pain or changes in your breasts. Symptoms that may occur along with breast pain include:

  • Breast swelling or lumpiness due to hormonal changes during puberty, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause

  • Fever

  • Irritability and mood swings, which can be due to premenstrual syndrome, perimenopause, or menopause

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, breast pain can be caused by or indicate a serious underlying condition, such as breast cancer. Seek prompt medical care if you have unexplained breast pain which may or may not occur with other symptoms, such as:

  • Breast deformity or misshapen breast

  • Change in the look and feel of the skin of the breast, such as dimpling or puckering

  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of the breast

  • New onset of inverted nipple

  • Nipple discharge or tenderness

  • Rash or sore on the breast or nipple

  • Redness or inflammation of the breast

  • Swelling of one arm, which may be associated with breast cancer

  • Swelling of underarm lymph nodes, which may be associated with breast cancer

  • Weight loss, which may be associated with cancer

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as lethargy, passing out, or unresponsiveness

  • Dizziness or feeling faint

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

Causes

What causes breast pain?

Breast pain may be caused by a variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. Sometimes breast pain is caused by a benign condition that is not generally harmful, such as pregnancy and other conditions that cause hormonal changes. In fact, over the course of your life, your breasts will undergo normal changes in size, shape, consistency and appearance. However, because breast pain and breast changes may indicate a serious condition, such as breast cancer, it is important to seek prompt medical care if you experience unexplained breast pain or other breast symptoms.

Hormonal causes of breast pain

Many different types of hormonal changes can cause breast pain including:

  • Menopause and perimenopause

  • Menstrual cycle

  • Pregnancy

  • Puberty

  • Use of hormone medications such as birth control pills

Breastfeeding-related causes of breast pain

Breast pain can also be caused by breastfeeding (nursing) and conditions often associated with breastfeeding including:

  • Mastitis (bacterial infection of the breast ducts)

  • Milk engorgement, such as when the milk initially comes in after birth or if the breasts have not adequately been relieved of milk

  • Plugged milk ducts (tender or painful lumps radiating from the areola)

Types of cancer that can cause breast pain

Breast pain is generally not a common symptom of breast cancer, but different types of cancers may cause breast pain including:

  • Breast cancer (also known as primary breast cancer, which begins in the breast)

  • Metastatic cancer that has spread from another body region to the breast

Disorders, diseases and conditions that can cause breast pain

Breast pain is more commonly caused by disorders, diseases and conditions, such as:

  • Adenosis (noncancerous lumps caused by enlarged breast lobules)

  • Cyst (benign, noncancerous sac that contains fluid, air or other materials)

  • Diabetic mastopathy (small, hard lumps in the ducts or the lobules of premenopausal women with type 1 diabetes)

  • Duct ectasia (widened breast ducts that become filled with fluid and hardened; duct ectasia most often occurs in middle age)

  • Fat necrosis (scarred fatty breast tissue)

  • Fibroadenomas (lumps made of glandular and connective breast tissue that occur more often in younger women)

  • Fibrocystic breasts (common enlargement or lumpiness of the fibrous breast tissue)

  • Gynecomastia (swelling of male breast tissue)

  • Hyperplasia (enlargement of the cells lining the breast ducts or breast lobules)

  • Intraductal papillomas (lumps in the breast ducts)

  • Phyllodes tumors (rare breast tumors made of an enlargement of connective tissue combined with glandular tissue; some Phyllodes tumors are malignant but most are benign)

  • Radial scars (benign breast lesions that look like cancer on mammograms)

Other causes of breast pain

Breast pain can also be caused by lifestyle, dietary or physical factors, such as:

  • Breast surgery

  • Diet containing high levels of caffeine, fat and salt

  • Injury to the breast or to an area near the breast such as a chest muscle

  • Wearing a bra with a poor fit or insufficient support

  • Weight fluctuations

What are the potential complications of breast pain?

In some cases, breast pain can be due to an underlying condition that can result in serious or life-threatening complications. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Complications of underlying causes of breast pain can include:

  • Bone pain from bone metastases of breast cancer

  • Breast abscess (collection of pus in the breast tissue)

  • Chronic breast pain

  • Secondary cancer (metastatic cancer), such as brain or lung cancer that has spread from the breast

  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection) caused by spread of a breast infection or abscess

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 21
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  6. Fibrocystic Breast Changes. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp138.cfm
  7. Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/FindCancerEarly/WomensHealth/Non-CancerousBreastConditions/index
  8. Symptoms [of Breast Cancer]. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/symptoms.htm
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