There are many reasons you may feel breast discomfort
Breast cancer may rank at the top of many women’s biggest health fears. So it’s no wonder that twinges of breast pain or tenderness can evoke a sense of dread or panic. But these symptoms are incredibly common, affecting 68 percent of women, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.
The good news is that breast pain by itself is rarely a sign of cancer. "The biggest problem with breast pain is fear," says Michael S. Collins, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "The majority of the time, breast pain is not associated with cancer."
But that doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable. And some doctors report that breast pain can become more bothersome as women approach perimenopause. "Just as PMS becomes more of an issue in the late thirties and early forties, breast pain can too," Dr. Collins explains. "It has to do partly with fluid retention in the luteal phase [second half] of the menstrual cycle."
Additionally, as women enter their 40s, the quality of their eggs declines, and their bodies don’t produce as much progesterone. "The breasts are sensitive to hormones, and in your forties, your hormones are not as well regulated," says Carolyn Runowicz, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist and director of the Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut in Farmington. "The tenderness, sensitivity and aching may be an imbalance issue, due to erratic hormone levels."
But breast pain can also be independent of your period. In such instances, the leading causes are muscle strain in the chest wall, an arthritic condition in the chest, trauma, an excess of the hormone prolactin, infection, cysts or a fibroadenoma (a benign tumor, more common in younger women).
"Any change from what’s normal for you should be investigated," says Sharon Rosenbaum Smith, M.D., a breast surgeon at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. If you’ve never had breast pain and it suddenly emerges, get it checked by your doctor; do likewise if breast pain is associated with a lump. Your doctor will want to make sure you’ve recently had a mammogram, and if there’s suspicion of a lump, a sonogram can be helpful, particularly in distinguishing a cyst from a solid mass, Dr. Rosenbaum Smith says.
To help your doctor get to the bottom of your breast pain, it helps to be as specific as possible about what you’re feeling. So be prepared to answer the following questions:
- How long have you had the pain?
- When did it start?
- Did you experience any trauma or injury to the breast?
- Does the pain change during your menstrual cycle?
- If it does, when does the pain come? When does it go?
- Is the pain in one breast or in both?
- Where exactly is it located?
- How would you describe the pain (for example, throbbing, shooting, a dull ache)?
- Is there any redness in overlying skin (which could indicate infection)?
- Does the pain radiate (which could indicate something unrelated to the breast, such as a spinal problem)?