Breast pain

Breast pain (also known as mastalgia) is the sensation of pain felt in or around your breast.

Key points on breast pain

  1. Breast pain is common and most women experience breast pain at some time. 
  2. It's usually not caused by breast cancer if it's your only symptom. 
  3. The causes of breast pain depend on whether it is cyclical (comes every month with your menstrual cycle) or non-cyclical.
  4. Cyclical breast pain can be treated with self-care measures such as wearing a better-fitting bra during the day and healthy lifestyle measures. 
  5. If your breast pain is non-cyclical, treatment will depend on the cause of your breast pain. 

If you have any of the following symptoms, contact your GP or healthcare clinic immediately:

  • high fever or temperature
  • red, hot or swollen breast
  • hard lump in your breast 
  • nipple discharge with blood streak
  • rash around your nipple
  • dimpled skin on or around your breast.

What are the causes of breast pain? 

The causes of breast pain depend on whether it is cyclical or non-cyclical.

Causes of cyclical breast pain

Cyclical breast pain means the pain comes every month. It starts before your period, gets worse and then goes away when your period ends.

This is due to changes in the levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone during your menstrual cycle. The pain usually affects the upper outer area of both breasts and can sometimes spread to your armpit. The pain can range from a dull ache to a burning sensation. 

Causes of non-cyclical breast pain 

Non-cyclical breast pain has no relation to your period. It can stay constant or come and go. The pain may affect one or both breasts. Women aged more than 40 years old are more likely to experience this.

Common causes include:

Injuries or sprains to your chest wall, ribs, neck, shoulder or back can be felt as breast pain. This is called referred pain. 

Sometimes breast pain occurs with no obvious cause.

How is breast pain diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions related to your breast pain, including whether you have any other symptoms such as breast lumps. They will also ask about any history of breast disease or surgeries.

Your doctor will examine your breasts and may arrange some blood tests or imaging, such as an ultrasound scan or mammogram, depending on what they think is causing your breast pain. 

How is breast pain treated?

Treatment depends on whether the pain is cyclical or non-cyclical. 

Cyclical breast pain can be treated with self-care measures, including:

  • wearing a supportive and better-fitting bra during the day 
  • wearing a sports bra when exercising
  • wearing a soft support bra without underwire when you sleep
  • reducing caffeine and fat in your diet
  • stopping smoking if you smoke
  • taking evening primrose oil (discuss this with your GP or pharmacist first if you have epilepsy or are taking other medicines)
  • taking pain relief, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, as directed by your GP or pharmacist. 

If your breast pain is non-cyclical, treatment will depend on the cause of your breast pain. 

Learn more

Breast pain HealthInfo Canterbury, NZ 
Breast pain Capital & Coast DHB, NZ 
Benign breast conditions Breast Cancer Foundation, NZ 
Breast pain NHS, UK 

References

  1. Breast pain (mastalgia) Auckland Regional HealthPathways, NZ, 2020 

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. She is looking forward to further study with Otago University in public health to learn about how we can reduce preventable disease and inequalities.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP Last reviewed: 30 Oct 2020