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 alone. Anywhere between 60 to 70 percent of women in the U.S. will experience breast pain, also known as mastodynia, at some point in their life. In order to learn more about this topic, we decided to tap Sherry A. Ross, MD and Kecia Gaither, MD.
Ross 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, excessive caffeine drinking, heavy cigarette smoking, fibrocystic breasts, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
“Breast tenderness experienced in both breasts is not associated with breast cancer,” Ross 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. “Go see a doctor if continued pain, redness, swelling, or discharge occurs,” says Gaither. Below, the experts break down the top reasons you may be dealing with breast pain, plus how to relieve breast tenderness for each situation.
Meet the Expert
- Sherry A. Ross, MD is an award-winning OB/GYN, women’s health expert, and co-founder of URJA Intimates.
- Kecia Gaither, MD, is double board-certified in OB/GYN and maternal-fetal medicine and director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.
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 Ross.
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, Ross 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. Ross 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 Ross. The doctor says your best bet is to reduce your caffeine and nicotine intake. One study showed that after reducing their caffeine intake for a year, 61 percent of participants reported a decrease or absence of breast pain.
Be sure to cut out caffeine gradually to try to avoid headaches and other withdrawal symptoms.
Pregnancy or Postpartum
“As soon as you have a positive pregnancy test, your breasts become enlarged and tender,” says Ross. In fact, your breast size will increase during both pregnancy and postpartum if you are breastfeeding, and you should change your bra size to accommodate this increase. Ross 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.
“Mastitis is an infection of the ducts that’s generally noted in breastfeeding mothers,” says Gaither. Mastitis occurs in approximately 10 percent of breastfeeding mothers in the U.S., and common symptoms include fever, tenderness, and redness on one or both breasts. If you suspect you might have a breast infection, contact your doctor, who can provide antibiotics, or a lactation consultant, who can offer assistance in changing your breastfeeding technique. Both in-office and at-home therapeutic breast massage in lactation has also been shown to provide relief for mastitis-related breast pain.
Ross says that many women wear the wrong bra size, and this could cause soreness. “Poor support leads to tender breasts regardless of your size,” says Ross. An everyday bra is form-fitting and prevents tenderness and sagging because it gives your breast tissue support during your typical daily activities. Ross says it’s important to get properly fitted by an expert if you have any questions about what size or which bra to wear.
Ross 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. One study examined the difference in reported breast discomfort when females exercised while wearing a sports bra, a crop top, and a fashion bra, and found that the fitted sports bra provided superior support and pain reduction.
Use different sports bras based on the workouts you're doing. Running might require a bra with fitted cups for more support, while a looser, seamless bra might be a better fit for yoga.
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 percent of women and can cause discomfort. Ross says that treatment includes wearing a supportive bra (sometimes even at night), taking Tylenol or Advil, and taking vitamins C, E, B6, and A.
“Fibroadenoma is a benign breast tumor which can cause cyclical breast soreness,” says Gaither. They’re most common in women between the ages of 14 and 35, and occur in approximately 10 percent of the world’s female population. While these tumors are noncancerous and shouldn’t be painful, they can be sensitive to touch (especially around your period). Some fibroadenoma are too small to feel, while others feel like a marble in the breast. In most cases, they don’t require treatment, and can shrink over time. If the fibroadenomas are larger or continue to grow, your doctor might recommend having them surgically removed.
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 Ross. This should all be in addition to wearing a supportive bra and eating a healthy diet. But when in doubt, always check with your doctor.
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