Breast Pain: 12 Reasons Your Breasts Hurt

Aching breasts are often nothing to worry about. Everything from your period to your workouts to your meds could be causing your pain. Here's what you should know–and when to talk to a doctor.

Woman showing breast cancer mastectomy scar
Photo: Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

If your breasts hurt, your mind may immediately jump to the "C" word, cancer. But the chances are slim that breast pain is breast cancer.

"Breast pain alone is rarely, rarely associated with cancer," Monique Swain, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist in the breast division at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said.

There are two types of breast pain:

  • Cyclical pain is associated with your period and most often affects both breasts.
  • Noncyclical pain is due to any other reason and doesn't follow a monthly pattern. It can affect one or both breasts, all of the breast, or part of it.

Most breast pain goes away on its own or can be easily treated. However, talk to a healthcare provider if the pain doesn't go away in a week or two, or if it gets in the way of everyday activities. You should also contact a healthcare provider if you have other symptoms, including a lump unrelated to your period, discharge from your nipple, or signs of infection like redness, swelling, and warmth.

Here are some possible reasons why you have breast pain.

01 of 12

You're Getting Your Period

Two-thirds of breast pain is caused by the predictable surges of estrogen and progesterone around your monthly period.

"Hormonal breast pain can happen to any woman that is menstruating," Dr. Swain said. "It doesn't matter if they're 14 or 44; as long as they're still menstruating, they have the risk of having cyclic breast pain."

You'll usually feel period-related breast soreness or pain in both breasts at once and all over your breasts. However, most people describe the pain as achy rather than sharp.

For some individuals, it's enough to know that the pain will go away, usually in a week to 10 days. Other individuals seek relief from over-the-counter pain medications. For example, there is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved prescription drug for breast pain called Danazol, but it can have serious side effects.

Tweaking your diet may limit menstrual breast pain as well: Eating more flaxseed might help, as can sticking to a low-fat diet that's rich in complex carbs, Dr. Swain said.

02 of 12

You're Pregnant

The first trimester of pregnancy brings a swirl of hormones that can cause mood changes, food cravings, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and breast pain.

Breast tissue grows, milk ducts fill, and nipples become sensitive, Jennifer Wu, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Women's Health of Manhattan in New York City, said. The pain is due to "acute hormonal changes," Dr. Wu said, including human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). "You're going from zero HCG hormone all the way up."

The pain is usually temporary. Take comfort knowing that the second and third trimesters will bring many more changes–and that one of them will be less or no breast pain.

03 of 12

You're Nursing

Your baby's mouth at your breast is natural but can also cause discomfort and pain. You may feel pain when the baby first latches onto your nipple or if their mouth isn't positioned correctly. The first goes away, and the second can be fixed by repositioning the baby.

The wetness of your baby's mouth may also cause painfully chapped and cracked nipples. Talk to a healthcare provider or lactation counselor about handling these symptoms, as they can lead to infections, including yeast infections.

Your breasts might also hurt when you're nursing if you have an infection in the milk ducts. If you do, "the milk ducts are very swollen," Dr. Wu said. "They may get clogged and backed up." Contact your healthcare provider if the pain in your breast while you're nursing, lasts more than a couple of days, or sooner if you're concerned.

04 of 12

You Take Certain Meds

Any medication that contains hormones–birth control, hormone therapy, some infertility treatments–can also cause breast pain, just like surges of naturally occurring hormones do before your period.

But so can other types of medications. For instance, antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may cause breast pain, and chlorpromazine, a medication to treat mental illness and other health conditions, can also cause breast pain—the reasons why aren't entirely clear. In addition, certain heart medications may also cause breast pain.

Talk to your healthcare provider if medication might be causing the problem; there could be a substitute treatment for you to try instead.

05 of 12

You Have a Cyst

Cysts are common in females 35 and over. "A cyst is a plugged or obstructed breast gland with fluid accumulation behind the obstruction," Therese Bevers, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said.

Cysts are generally harmless, but they can be painful. "If [the fluid] is distending the walls of that duct, stretching tissue, it can become sensitive and very painful," Dr. Bevers said.

Treatment depends on your age, how big the breast cysts are, and if they hurt or not. You may decide to do nothing, or your healthcare provider may drain the fluid to ease the pain.

06 of 12

You Had Surgery

Any trauma to the breast can cause pain, including surgery, a biopsy, an elbow to the chest, a seatbelt injury, or even rough sex.

If you sustained an injury, you'll probably know why you hurt immediately. Hopefully, it's not so serious that the pain sticks around.

After the fact, sometimes, as long as two years later, an injury can cause fat necrosis, which appears as a thickening or lumpiness in the breast. By this time, you may not remember the original injury, but luckily this isn't dangerous and doesn't need to be treated. However, if you are concerned, contact your healthcare provider for advice.

07 of 12

You Have Shingles

Shingles is a later-in-life manifestation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who had chickenpox when they were younger can develop shingles, but your breasts will only hurt with the infection if the trademark shingles rash turns up on your breasts.

"I'll find a rash on the side of the breast, and sometimes the patient didn't even know it was there," Dr. Swain said.

That rash can be excruciating, with itchy blisters that burst. You might also have a fever, headaches, and sensitivity to light.

Shingles usually lasts from two to six weeks, and there's no cure (there is a shingles vaccine). However, antiviral medications can help you get better faster. Your healthcare provider might also prescribe painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs that can help ease nerve pain.

08 of 12

You Strained a Muscle

A strain to your chest muscles after a challenging workout might feel like breast pain even though the injury is elsewhere. Heat and over-the-counter pain relievers are usually enough to ease muscular pain; your healthcare provider may recommend something stronger if the pain is more severe.

Muscle problems are just one type of "extramammary" pain or pain that originates outside of but is felt in the breast. Other causes include pneumonia, heartburn, spinal problems, gallbladder disease, heart disease, and neck arthritis.

Of course, don't overlook any chest pain (including in your breasts) that could signify a heart attack. Other heart attack symptoms in females can include pressure, squeezing, or tightness in the middle of your chest; shortness of breath; and pain in your arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Call 911 right away if you think you're having a heart attack.

09 of 12

You Have Big Breasts

Large breasts can cause enough of a strain that they stretch breast ligaments and tissues. This can cause pain in your breasts and possibly in your back, neck, and shoulders.

"Women with larger breasts can have breast pain, but typically those women will come in with other concerns too, like back pain and shoulder pain," Dr. Swain said.

Finding the right, supportive bra can go a long way towards alleviating this type of pain. You can also try over-the-counter painkillers. For intense pain, your healthcare provider may prescribe you medication to help.

In extreme cases, some females opt for breast reduction surgery.

10 of 12

You're Wearing the Wrong Bra

An ill-fitting bra can cause pain even if you don't have big breasts. "The majority of the time, women are wearing bras that are too big," Dr. Swain said, and a too-big bra isn't going to support you very well.

A too-small bra isn't much better since it might feel restrictive and uncomfortable. If underwire makes your breast pain worse, pick one with more cushioning at the base of the breast, Dr. Swain said.

Dr. Swain also recommended getting fitted at a department or specialty store where you can buy a well-made bra. "Specific brands are more supportive than others," Dr. Swain said.

11 of 12

You're Nearing Menopause

Females approaching menopause might experience a painful widening and thickening of the milk duct called duct ectasia. This causes a buildup of fluid and debris. "It can cause pain in the nipple and areola," Dr. Swain said.

Other symptoms can include a cottage cheese-like discharge from the nipple, a nipple that is turned inward, or a lump, but some females have no symptoms of duct ectasia.

If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to rule out other, more serious causes.

The condition usually takes care of itself over time (warm compresses can help in the meantime) and doesn't change your risk of breast cancer. However, if the pain doesn't go away, your healthcare provider may recommend removing the duct with surgery.

12 of 12

You Could Have Inflammatory Breast Cancer

This is one of the few times breast cancer may involve pain. Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of the disease that accounts for about 1% to 5% of all breast cancers.

In people with inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer cells obstruct the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast, causing redness, swelling, and inflammation over about a third of the breast. The skin may also look pitted due to the buildup of lymph fluid. Sometimes you might feel a lump, but usually, not.

Inflammatory breast cancer is more common in younger females, African-American females, and females affected by obesity–and it's usually treated with surgery, chemo, and/or radiation. Targeted therapies are also sometimes used.

Many of these symptoms could also be from an infection or injury. Don't panic, but do get checked out by your healthcare provider.

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