Dealing with Breast Pain? Here Are 10 Possible Causes

Cassie Shortsleeve
·6 mins read

Studio Firma/Stocksy

Breast pain (AKA mastalgia) can be a painful reality at seemingly all stages of life. Sometimes it’s easy enough to pinpoint a reason for the symptoms (it’s that time of the month, you just had a baby). Other times? IDing the cause of your breast pain feels like a guessing game.

After all, breast pain can come and go or be more constant, it can range in severity from mild to severe, and it can include feelings like breast tenderness, sharp or burning pains, tightness, warmth, and more.

The good news: Most of the time, breast pain isn’t breast cancer (though, it’s definitely worth noting that if you’re worried, it’s always best to get symptoms checked out by a doctor).

Otherwise? Start with this list — a comprehensive guide to what could be causing your breast pain.

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Hormones Are at Play

“Breast tissue is very sensitive to hormone changes,” explains Sarah Cate, M.D., an assistant professor of breast surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And often, it’s a fluctuation of hormones that causes breast pain, she says. So, if you notice your boobs feel super tender around ovulation (when estrogen soars), your period (when it sinks), while you’re pregnant (as hormone levels skyrocket), or while going through menopause (when estrogen levels sink again), hormones are likely at play.

Hormone-related breast pain is typically on both sides and OTC Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil, Motrin, or Aleve can help, she says. Touch base with your doctor before taking medications in pregnancy (most docs suggest avoiding NSAIDs with a baby on the way).

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You Have a Breast Cyst

Breast cysts — little fluid-filled sacs often caused by fluctuations in estrogen — can crop up inside your breasts and they can hurt. A breast cyst will usually feel well-defined — like a grape or a water balloon — and some will feel firm. Fortunately, breast cysts are usually benign (read: not cancerous). Sometimes, they resolve on their own after a couple of months, and you can also have them drained via a simple in-office procedure, says Dr. Cate. Important to note: If you ever feel a lump in your breast, it’s best to get checked out by your doctor ASAP just to be safe.

You Have Large Breasts

“There is definitive data on breast pain and breast size,” says Dr. Cate. “Patients with larger breasts sometimes feel more pulling and pressure when they take off their bras.” This is likely due to factors such as muscle strain and even misalignment when heavy breasts pull you out of your center of gravity. Wearing a good, well-fitting bra (and sports bra) can help, she notes. If you’re noticing discomfort most of the time or during exercise and switching bras doesn’t help, breast reduction surgery is an option that many women turn to to ease discomfort from large breasts.

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You’re Overdoing It on Coffee

Start your day with coffee, sip tea in the afternoon, and eat chocolate for dessert? Caffeine may disrupt or change hormone levels, contributing to breast pain, says Dr. Cate. Some doctors even suggest women with breast pain cut caffeine out or cut back on it to reduce their symptoms.

You're Taking Hormonal Birth Control

Remember that whole idea of fluctuating hormones playing a role in breast pain? Dr. Cate says that some people tend to notice their breasts hurt while taking hormonal birth control — likely, yep, a result of those hormones at work. If your pain is getting in the way of your day-to-day activities and life, touch base with your doctor to talk about other potential forms of birth control, including non-hormonal forms (think: the copper IUD) which might be helpful.

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You Injured Yourself

Sometimes, breast pain doesn’t originate in the breast itself. In fact, the term “extramammary breast pain” refers to breast pain that feels like it’s in your breast but the source of the pain is actually somewhere else in your body. Say you did a new kind of yoga class and pulled a muscle in your chest accidentally. You might feel pain in your chest that feels like breast pain but is actually from that pulled chest muscle. In fact, any musculoskeletal pain in your back, neck, or shoulders can be felt as pain in the breasts, causing pain, says Dr. Cate.

Your Breasts Are Engorged

New mom? About two to five days after your baby is born, your breasts begin to add more fluid to the colostrum (a.k.a. early breast milk) in your breasts which leads your breasts to swell up in size — something that can be, at least at first, seriously uncomfortable. If you choose to breastfeed, doing so as frequently and as long as your baby requires can help the transition and regulate your milk supply, says Andrea Syms-Brown, an international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) in New York. Wear soft nursing bras and apply cool compresses to your breasts to reduce swelling, too, she suggests.

Your Baby Has a Poor Latch While Breastfeeding

Another culprit for breast pain in breastfeeding moms: the latch. “A good latch is the key to a comfortable, enjoyable, and successful breastfeeding experience,” says Syms-Brown. If your baby is latched only to your nipple (instead of your areola — the larger circle around your nipple), friction from the baby’s tongue can cause pain and lead to nipple damage, she says. Try to keep your baby’s mouth open while they latch so that they’re on your areola. A lactation specialist (you can find one on a site like Robyn which connects moms with wellness providers) can help you find a comfortable position for a good latch and help you find the most comfortable ways to breastfeed.

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You Have Mastitis

Ugh, mastitis. If you’re a new mom, you’ve likely heard of this condition that’s essentially an inflammation of breast tissue that can turn into an infection. “Mastitis is over-engorgement that overwhelms the milk ducts making it hard for milk to be released effectively, leading to milk building up in the ducts,” says Syms-Brown. Since milk ducts aren’t designed to store milk, the ducts can wind up infected. If you have mastitis, you might have breast pain, swelling, warmth, redness, and even a temperature and flu-like symptoms. Touch base with an IBCLC or your healthcare provider for a treatment plan ASAP, suggests Syms-Brown.

In Rare Cases, It Could Be Cancer

First things first: “Breast pain is usually only connected to breast cancer when the cancer is large,” says Dr. Cate. But even though breast pain isn’t usually caused by breast cancer, if you’re noticing unexplained pain, it’s best to touch base with your doctor for an examination and potentially breast imaging, says Dr. Cate. “The combination of those two evaluations will clarify whether there is an underlying breast cancer.”