What Causes Breast Pain and Tenderness In Women? Diagnosis and Treatment of Mastalgia

What Causes Breast Pain and Tenderness In Women? Diagnosis and Treatment of Mastalgia

Are you the one who feels hot, sharp or shooting pain in the breast? Is the pain constant or intermittent? Women of all ages go through some kind of breast disorders in their lifetime. Breast pain is a common condition that can sometimes become problematic for women if not timely diagnosed and treated.

Breast Pain

Breast pain or clinically known as mastalgia is one of the common complaints of women. In fact, it affects about 70 percent of the women at least once in their lifetime. And out of these, 15 percent will require treatment to get relief. Breast pain is defined as tenderness, sharp pain or tightness in the breasts. The pain can be experienced in part of a breast, entire breast or both the breasts as well as in the armpit.  

Also, the severity of the pain can vary from woman to woman. It occurs more in younger women than the women who have passed menopausal phase.

Is breast pain serious?

It is a common belief that pain means something wrong is happening in our body. But at times, it’s just a byproduct of a natural function such as soreness or painful breasts before every monthly menstruation cycle. Breast pain is typically a sign of a breast condition which is non-cancerous in nature.

However, pain might also indicate a serious underlying condition such as cancer. It is estimated that about 5 percent of breast tumors will cause pain in the breast in early stages of breast cancer. Having said that, it becomes important to differentiate or classify breast pain for better understanding.

Types of breast pain

There are primarily two types of breast pain; cyclic and non-cyclic.

  1. Cyclical Breast Pain – This type of pain is associated with your menstrual cycle and how breast tissue reacts following changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. Some might feel pain, soreness, and swelling while some other may notice lump while touching. If you experience these symptoms, they will usually occur a few days before menstruation and subside after the periods. About 75 percent of breast pain is reported under the cyclic category.
  2. Non-cyclical Breast Pain – As the name denotes, this type of pain occurs outside the menstrual cycle. The non-cyclic pain is uncommon and some women feel the pain in one area of the breast. This may occur as a result of an injury, trauma or biopsy. Physical exertion might also induce pain in breasts.

What causes breast pain?

Breast pain can occur due to a variety of factors and it’s not always possible to identify the exact reason. But some known causes are:

Hormonal changes

The menstrual cycle of a woman causes fluctuations in hormones. If the pain occurs in menstruating women, it might get worse 2-3 days before the start of the menstrual period. In some cases, the pain can run throughout the menstrual cycle.

Changes in breast structure

Pain can occur as a result of changes in the milk ducts or milk glands. This can result in the development of cyst. Also as women ages, her breast tissue start turning to fat. This can cause side effect and cause cysts development with more fibrous tissue. This side effect is known as fibrocystic breast tissue that can sometimes cause pain.

Breast Size

Some women have large breasts and this could also cause pain in their breasts. Pain in neck, shoulder, and back might accompany breast pain due to their large size.


Certain medications that are used to treat infertility, antidepressants, antibiotics, oral birth control pills or hormonal medications might induce pain in the breast.

Breast surgery

If you have gone through breast surgery, pain from scar tissue can linger after incisions of breast surgery have healed.


Though feeding the newborn is the most awesome things of being a mother but isn’t immune to downsides. Breast pain due to breastfeeding can occur because of an infection in the milk ducts (mastitis). This causes severe pain and itching on the nipples. Pain might also occur due to breast engorgement, a condition in which breasts becomes overfull with milk and become redden.


Breast pain in pregnancy is in fact, one of the earliest signs of pregnancy and it’s completely normal. A pregnant woman might feel pain in breasts during the first three months of pregnancy. During this period, the breasts will be sensitive, swollen or sore. The pain occurs due to the imbalance of hormones and changes in the breast during pregnancy. The pain, however, decreases or disappears in the second half of the pregnancy.

Some women might feel pain all throughout the pregnancy while some would hardly feel any pain.

Symptoms of breast pain

As mentioned above, breast pain falls in the category of cyclic and non-cyclic. So the symptoms are also characterized differently.

  1. Symptoms in Cyclic breast pain – A woman might feel dull, heavy or aching in the breasts, often accompanied by swelling or lump. Generally, pain occurs in both the breasts and particularly the upper and outer portions.
  2. Symptoms in Non-cyclic breast pain – The pain is characterized by tightness, burning or soreness in the breasts. Usually, the pain occurs in one breast and is localized to an area of the breast, but might also radiate across the breast.

Is breast pain cancerous?

Breast pain is not typically linked to cancer. In most of the cases, breast pain is not the first symptom of breast cancer. However, fibrocystic tissue which can cause a lump in the breast can make it difficult for the doctor to detect a tumor. If the breast pain is localized to one area of the breast and is consistent with no fluctuations in the pain level, you must seek an appointment with the doctor.

Diagnosis of breast pain

When breast pain is occurring in one area of the breast, lasting for few weeks and hindering your normal activities, it’s time to see the doctor. First, the doctor will physically examine the breast such as lump or thickening. Then the gynecologist might suggest additional tests for further evaluation. These include:

  1. Mammogram - This is an x-ray exam to check the area of pain.
  2. Ultrasound – Using sound waves, this device creates images of the breasts. Even if the mammogram shows normal results, you might also have to go through ultrasound for better evaluation.
  3. Breast biopsy – At times, even ultrasound might not be conclusive enough to make a diagnosis. In these cases, a breast biopsy will be performed in which sample of the breast tissue will be removed from the breasts and sent to the pathologist for further findings.

Breast Pain Treatment

Breast pain doesn’t always require treatment. It might go on its own without any intervention. If it requires intervention, the doctor will ask you about your age, medical history and how severe is the pain. Depending on the type and cause of pain, the doctor may recommend following things:

  • Wearing supportive bra, especially if a woman has large breasts
  • Applying a topical cream on the area of pain or using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medicines such as ibuprofen and naproxen
  • Adjusting birth control pills to make hormone levels smooth and even
  • Taking calcium supplements
  • Stopping menopausal hormonal therapy
  • Some women might feel reduction in pain after quitting smoking or decreasing caffeine intake

Breast pain, whatever the reason behind is, need to be evaluated. When you don’t know any valid reason or difficulty figuring out the problem, don’t suffer; seek the support of your gynecologist as soon as possible.


1. Breast Pain. National Breast Cancer Foundation read more
2. Breast pain(2016, October 06) NHS read more
3. Breast Pain (Mastalgia)(2014, May 29) read more