Breast Pain: Just Another Female Thing or Should You Worry?

Some types of breast pain are part of a woman’s developing body and natural cycle. But how do you know when you need to see your doctor?

Woman in grey shirt examines one of her breasts with both hands

Breast pain, especially the kind that comes just before a woman’s time of the month, is sometimes brushed off as just “part of life”. If you have recently undergone a surgery or procedure related to the breasts, you’ll likely experience some breast pain and discomfort after, which is normal.

While it isn’t usually a cause for concern, there are times you may want to speak to your doctor. Your breasts are made of different types of tissue, namely glandular tissue (lobes and ducts), connective tissue (similar to muscle tissue elsewhere), and fatty tissue in between.

Besides hormonal changes that may also cause PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or period pain, there could be other reasons for breast pain. We will explore those reasons in this article.

Types, Causes, and Symptoms of Breast Pain  

There are three categories of breast pain: cyclical, non-cyclical, and chest wall pain.

Cyclical breast pain 

Cyclical breast pain is due to normal hormonal changes in your body. Halfway through the menstrual cycle, oestrogen will usually peak, a week before your period. It stimulates the growth of milk ducts in preparation  for pregnancy.

In the remaining half of the menstrual cycle, the hormone, progesterone, begins to increase. This signals the formation of milk glands to prepare for pregnancy. This general swelling is what causes pain and soreness in some women;they may even notice an increase in their breast size.

If pregnancy doesn’t occur, her hormones will return to a normal state and breast pain dissipates. Cyclical breast pain would also disappear in menopausal women who no longer have their menstrual cycle.

Non-cyclical breast pain 

This refers to pain that’s not related to regular hormonal changes (though it can sometimes link to hormones). For example, if you take hormonal birth control pills or injections or are undergoing hormone replacement therapy, the synthetic hormones meant to prevent ovulation or manage menopausal symptoms could cause breast swelling.

Other causes of non-cyclical breast pain include inflammation due to infection such as mastitis (usually in breastfeeding women), breast cysts and fibroadenomas. More general causes that affect the whole body such as stress, smoking, and excessive caffeine consumption could play a role too.

Chest wall pain 

Sometimes pain doesn’t come from the breasts. It can be due to an injury or inflammation in the musculoskeletal structures in the chest wall just behind the breasts. This could be due to a condition called costochondritis, which is an inflammation around the ribs. There could also be an issue with an organ in the chest cavity like an angina in the heart, or gallstones in the gallbladder. 

Treatments and Remedies for Breast Pain 

In addition to regular painkillers, place heating pads over the chest to ease breast pain.
In addition to regular painkillers, you can place heating pads over the chest to ease breast pain.

Breast pain usually responds well to regular over-the-counter oral or topical painkillers such as paracetamol, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. You can even put heating pads or cooling bags on your chest area to ease pain. 

Supplements like evening primrose oil that contains gamma linoleic acid (GLA) may help with cyclical breast pain. Studies have found that a deficiency in prostaglandin E1 and its precursor GLA may increase breast sensitivity.

Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you’re also pregnant. Include general relaxation as part of self-care, regular exercise, a well-fitting bra, and a balanced diet. 

If severe pain persists for more than one or two cycles and appears to be out of the ordinary, check with your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will prescribe different treatments depending on the cause. 

Causes of Breast Pain According to TCM

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are two main causes of breast pain and tenderness, explains TCM physician Wong Si Xuan. The two main causes are a Stagnation of Liver qi, or Deficiency in Kidney and Liver.  

“For the former, breast pain and tenderness happen before your period comes. You may notice nodules on your breasts, dark period colour, cramps, bloating, as well as depression or irritability during your period. Women who experience a lot of stress and who are overworked often experience this. The bad emotions can also lead to the Stagnation of qi and blood,” Physician Wong elaborates. 

“Meanwhile, pain and tenderness caused by Deficiency in Kidney and Liver is usually felt during or after your period. You may notice scant or light periods (hypomenorrhoea), a pinkish colour to your period, dry eyes, dizziness, tinnitus, and back pain. This Deficiency is common in women who always stay up late, are overworked, or who have excessive sex,” she shares further. 

TCM Remedies for Breast Pain

Chinese herbal soup on a spoon
TCM herbal formulations such as dang gui jian pi qing bu soup mix that contain dang gui or donq quai is beneficial for women’s health.

“Herbal formulations that contain Angelica root (dang gui, 当归) can be beneficial to relieve stagnation of the Liver qi by improving blood and qi circulation. Rose tea or acacia flower tea can also help. Meanwhile, to nourish Kidney jing (essence) and Liver qi, talk to your TCM practitioner about taking the TCM Waist Tonic or Bak Foong Pill.

Foods such as mulberries, raspberries, black sesame, and black beans can nourish and boost Kidney and Liver qi. Soaking your legs in warm water one hour before going to bed can also help relieve stress and Stagnation. It also boosts blood and qi circulation,” physician Wong shares some TCM remedies.  

Check with a qualified TCM practitioner prior to taking any herbs, especially if you’re pregnant. You can also consider other TCM modalities such as moxibustion, cupping, and acupuncture, under the guidance of a TCM practitioner. 

You don’t have to put up with breast pain. Understanding your breasts better and the different types and causes of it can improve your quality of life. While breast pain doesn’t necessarily indicate serious illness such as breast cancer, make sure you get regular women’s health check-ups so that your doctor can detect any unusual changes in your breasts.

References

  1. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Anatomy of the Breast. [online] [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 
  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Normal Breast Development and Changes. [online] [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Breast Pain (Mastalgia). [online] [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 
  4. Breast Cancer Now. 2018. Chest Wall Pain. [online] [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 
  5. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2021. Fibrocystic Breast Disease. [online] [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 
  6. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dong Quai. [online]  [Accessed 8 April 2022]. 

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