It happened: All of a sudden your breasts feel more tender than normal and something as small as your T-shirt rubbing against them has you cringing in pain. Should you be worried? And do you know how to relieve breast tenderness? Well, if this is happening to you, you’re not out of the ordinary. Almost 50% of women have consulted a healthcare professional due to breast tenderness, also known as mastodynia. In order to learn more about this topic, we decided to tap Sherry A. Ross, MD.
Meet the Expert
Sherry told us that our breast tissue is sensitive to hormones, diet, medications, and lifestyle habits, and breast tenderness affects women of all ages. Common causes of pain in both breasts include the birth control pill, hormone replacement therapy, heavy cigarette smoking, excessive caffeine drinking, fibrocystic breasts, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and diets high in saturated fats.
“Breast tenderness experienced in both breasts is not associated with breast cancer,” Sherry tells us. “If you are experiencing breast tenderness in one of your breasts only, it would be a reason to see a healthcare provider.” This is because inflammatory breast cancer can be associated with breast pain. When in doubt, always visit your doctor if you’re experiencing new pain or tenderness because treating painful breasts depends on the cause of the pain. Below, Sherry details the seven top reasons you may be dealing with breast pain, plus how to relieve breast tenderness for each situation.
We know that PMS symptoms are varied and can include bloating, weight gain, cramps, headaches, irritability, and breast tenderness. When your symptoms improve once your period starts, you can tell there is a hormonal connection (typically, breast tissue is especially sensitive to the increasing amounts of estrogen about two weeks before your period begins). While some women are more sensitive to hormonal changes, the intensity of an individual’s pain can also vary from month to month. “If we are able to medically stop someone’s period using oral contraception or a progesterone IUD, PMS symptoms are impressively improved or disappear completely,” says Sherry. Some ways to relieve this type of discomfort other than using birth control include avoiding foods high in sodium (like Chinese food) and limiting alcohol intake. You should also drink as much water as possible; take vitamins like calcium, vitamins E and D, thiamine, magnesium, and omega-3 fish oil; and drink green tea.
You’re not experiencing something out of the ordinary if you have breast tenderness caused by your birth control pill. Although, Sherry does explain that you don’t have to deal with it. “It’s important to know these side effects are temporary, and if they don’t go away in two to three months, you should change to another type of pill.” Just because one pill is causing you to feel this way does not mean that they all will—there are many different types and combinations of estrogen and progesterone and each will affect you differently.
Nicotine or Caffeine
There are always little-known facts that surprise us, and this happened to be one of them. Sherry told us that women who consume excessive amounts of caffeine or nicotine will notice more breast tenderness. And why is that? “Caffeine and nicotine stimulate the breast tissue, making breasts more sensitive and painful, especially in the days leading up to a period,” says Sherry. The doctor says your best bet is to reduce your caffeine and nicotine intake.
Pregnancy or Postpartum
“As soon as you have a positive pregnancy test, your breasts become enlarged and tender,” says Sherry. In fact, your breast size will increase two to three times during pregnancy and you should change your bra size to accommodate this increase. Plus, once you are breastfeeding, your breasts will increase a couple more sizes and the tenderness will intensify. Sherry recommends a lactation consultant, all-purpose cream, Lanolin cream, a heating pad, and warm to hot showers to help lessen the tenderness experienced during this time.
Sherry says that 80% of women wear the wrong bra size, and in Western cultures, 10% to 25% of women don’t wear a bra at all. “Poor support leads to tender breasts regardless of your size,” says Sherry. An everyday bra is form-fitting and prevents tenderness and sagging because it gives your breast tissue support during your typical daily activities. Sherry says it’s important to get properly fitted by an expert if you have any questions about what size or which bra to wear.
Sherry says it’s also important to wear a sports bra when exercising. “If you don’t wear a sports bra and choose to wear your everyday bra during exercise, the delicate and sensitive breast tissue will bounce and move in such a way that breast tenderness will occur,” the doctor says. Furthermore, if you continuously exercise without the appropriate bra, breast tissue with its fibrous ligaments and fatty tissue will continue to be tender and saggy.
In case you didn’t know, some women have fibrocystic or dense cystic breasts, meaning that they are classically lumpy and tender in one or both breasts. Although it’s a benign disease, it affects a whopping 60% of women and can cause discomfort. Sherry says that treatment includes wearing a supportive bra (sometimes even at night); taking Tylenol or Advil; and taking vitamins C, E, B6, and A.
No Real Cause
“In this case, over-the-counter remedies, such as evening primrose oil, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and vitamin E, can help with the discomfort,” suggests Sherry. This should all be in addition to wearing a supportive bra and eating a healthy diet.
Now that you know how to relieve breast tenderness, there's no reason to be confused (or concerned). But when in doubt, always check with your doctor.
Malherbe K, Fatima S. Fibrocystic Breast Disease. StatPearls. 2020.