Breast Tenderness: What It Is And What Causes It

Do you often deal with breast tenderness when it’s that time of the month? Do you experience soreness or pain in a specific area of your breasts that keep you from enjoying going out or being active? 

You’re not alone. 50% of all women will experience breast pain at some point in their lives, according to the Breast Health Centre. Breast tenderness is common—but it’s not untreatable. In my experience, breast tenderness is often a sign of a deeper issue, with hormone imbalance being one of the most common causes. 

What Is Breast Tenderness?

Mastalgia, or breast tenderness, is not a “disease.” Rather, breast pain is often a symptom or sign of a deeper underlying issue in your body. 

If you’ve been stressing about your breast tenderness, then I want you to know that it is almost always benign and harmless.

Symptoms of mastalgia can include a variety of pain types in the breast, including tenderness, tightness, burning, aching, and heaviness. Women can experience breast pain on a regular, consistent basis or intermittently. It can range from mild discomfort to severe pain that prevents activity. It can be in a specific area of one breast or a general pain in both breasts.

As you can see, “mastalgia” has a wide definition. The symptoms you may be experiencing are often directly linked to the cause of the pain.

What Causes Breast Tenderness?

If you’re experiencing breast tenderness, you want to treat it appropriately so you can get back to living a full and pain-free life. Treating breast tenderness starts by understanding the cause. First, you need to understand if your breast tenderness is cyclic or noncyclic—basically, is it related to your period or not? From there, you can better understand what the potential causes and associated treatments could be.

Cyclic Breast Tenderness

Cyclic breast tenderness is the most common type of breast pain. It’s usually found in both breasts and can feel sore, tender, dull, aching, or heavy. It can be mild to moderate pain that is centered around the breasts but may radiate to the armpit and down the arm.

Cyclic tenderness is caused by hormonal changes throughout the month and can be a sign of estrogen dominance. It’s often one of the symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Before you get your period, your hormones start to surge and change. Imbalances of estrogen and progesterone can cause fluid increase and swelling in your breasts. This is another reason you may get premenstrual cramps, back pain, or even headaches during your period. Find out more about the relationship between hormones, pain, and PMS here.

Because cyclic breast tenderness is usually related to PMS, it will often go away without treatment and stop by the end of your period. It’s also more common in younger women or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as hormone levels tend to fluctuate more during menstruation and pregnancy.  

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Noncyclic Breast Tenderness

Noncyclic breast tenderness can happen at any time of the month and is not related to the menstrual cycle. It can occur in both or only one breast, and it can even affect one particular area of one breast. In fact, many women with noncyclic breast tenderness can point to the exact spot where they feel the discomfort. It’s often described as sharp, tight, or burning pain.

Trauma

There are a number of causes for noncyclic pain. The number one cause is injury to the breast. For example, if you wear poor fitting bras, you fall on your breasts, or your breasts move while running, you could cause trauma to your breast.

Fibrocystic Breasts

Cysts can appear in the breasts and cause tenderness or pain as well. Women who experience frequent cysts in their breasts often have what’s called “fibrocystic breasts.” These are harmless sacs, but they can cause pain—especially if they rupture. Although these cysts are generally noncyclic, the pain is generally worse prior to menses because of a surge of hormones associated with PMS.

Fibroadenoma

Another possible cause is a fibroadenoma, which is a noncancerous tumor found in the glands. These are round and painless and they can be moved around. Your doctor may do a biopsy to ensure confirm the diagnosis   

Perimenopause Symptoms

Women who are pre-menopausal may also experience noncyclic breast tenderness because of a fluctuations  of hormones related to menopausal changes. In this way, noncyclic pain is more common in women ages 30-50.

breast tenderness meaning

 

Stress

Whether you have cyclic or noncyclic breast tenderness, stress will always make your pain worse. Stress releases the hormone cortisol. Producing high levels of cortisol actually decrease  the production of progesterone, which your body needs in order to have a regular menstrual cycle. Low progesterone can cause breast tenderness and other painful PMS symptoms.

Read more on how to reduce your stress today for better hormones.

Pregnancy

Swollen, achy breasts are one of the first signs of pregnancy. This is due to the increase in progesterone. If paired with a missed period, you may want to visit your doctor.

Lactation

Pain from breastfeeding can also cause noncyclic pain. Breasts can fill with milk if not feeding or pumping regularly leading to engorgement. This is also common in early postpartum when your milk first comes in. This breast engorgement can cause pain and swelling. Similarly, you can get a painful blocked duct, where there is a backup of milk. This can cause a small lump that can be mistaken for a cyst or fibroadenoma.

Learn more about lactation related breast pain in my book, Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth.

Infection (Mastitis)

Mastitis is an infection in the breast. It’s often caused by a clogged milk duct in lactating women, but it can also occur in non-lactating women. If you experience other symptoms of infection like fever, aches, fatigue, and breast changes (warmth and redness), visit your doctor.

Medication Side Effects

Breast tenderness can be a side effect of a number of medications, including:

  • Birth control pills
  • Estrogen or progesterone replacement therapy
  • Antidepressants and SSRIs
  • Infertility treatments
  • Some diuretics
  • Antipsychotics, like chlorpromazine
  • Blood pressure meds, like spironolactone and methyldopa

Be sure to schedule a visit with your doctor if you believe your breast tenderness is due to a medication side effect.

Bras

A poor fitting bra  can aggravate and damage the tissue, leading to breast soreness and heaviness.Wear quality bras and sports bras that fit correctly. Buy bras without underwire, as this wire can dig into the tissue of the breast and cause more pain. I’d say this is a great excuse to go splurge on a few new silk-lined bras!

 

Is Breast Tenderness A Sign Of Breast Cancer?

Breast tenderness is not usually a sign of breast cancer. Breast pain is usually a symptom of hormonal changes or a benign, noncancerous lump.

Although breast tenderness does not automatically mean you have breast cancer, it is still something you might want to talk to your doctor about. Approximately 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. Thus, it’s important to be aware of changes in your breast and to meet with your doctor to evaluate your risk.

You should visit your doctor if:

  • You are feeling anxious about your pain. Never let pain affect your mental wellbeing.
  • The pain persists after your period for 2 or 3 menstrual cycles.
  • The pain happens after menopause.
  • You do a self-examination and find a lump. (It could be a fibroadenoma or cyst, but better to be safe than sorry.)
  • You have a fever, redness, nipple discharge, swollen lymph nodes, or severe pain.
  • There is a change to the skin texture or appearance.
  • The breast becomes red, hot or swollen.

Should You Take Medications For Breast Tenderness?

Medications for breast tenderness and other symptoms of PMS exist, but they aren’t the root cause solution and many can make symptoms worse or have some scary side effects. Although 70% of people have breast tenderness at some point, only about 15% of those women require treatment for severe pain. Taking medications is not only unnecessary, but it’s also potentially harmful.

Prescription medications like Danazol and Tamoxifen citrate can be prescribed for severe cyclic pain, but these types of meds actually destabilize your hormones. In fact, you might even find yourself with a nice beard, cystic acne, and painful spotting when on these prescriptions. While Tamoxifen has been shown to be effect for women with severe breast pain, it comes with the added risk of blood clots and endometrial cancer.  If estrogen dominance is the issue, skip the drugs and get to the root. In my clinic, we help women balance their hormones and get their estrogen in check every day!

Birth control pills are another common “remedy” for breast tenderness and PMS symptoms, but these too can throw hormones off balance and worsen pain. The pill minimizes symptoms of PMS because it actually suppresses your hormones and periods… but that same suppression can actually cause breast tenderness as well. And if low mood is part of your PMS picture, you may want to steer clear of hormonal contraceptives or at least have a discussion with your doctor because these hormones are associated with depression. This severe imbalance of hormones can cause long-term damage to your sexual wellbeing.

Over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs can be used in a bind. They only offer temporary relief and can make the underlying problem worse. Meds like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can actually worsen PMS symptoms over time by suppressing ovulation and lowering progesterone.

Medications can and will cause an imbalance of hormones that disrupt your body’s natural processes. Learn more about naturally eliminating PMS symptoms here.

How Can You Naturally Treat Breast Tenderness?

But medications aren’t your only solution. You don’t have to “deal with” breast tenderness anymore. A few simple, natural steps can diminish your pain in no time.

Hormone Supporting Nutrients

Supplementing with key vitamins magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E has been shown to improve symptoms of breast tenderness. Magnesium has been shown to relieve symptoms of PMS by reducing inflammation and “reviving” hormone production. Studies show that a combination of vitamin E and B6 can reduce breast pain. A combination of magnesium and B6 can reduce the severity of a number of PMS symptoms, like breast pain, cravings, anxiety, water retention, bloating, oily skin, nausea, back pain, and headaches.

You can supplement your vitamin regimen with magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E, but you can also naturally add these in your diet as well. Foods with all three nutrients include: almonds, spinach, avocado, and banana. You can also consume magnesium from Swiss chard, figs, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate. Vitamin B6 is also present in  salmon, chicken breast, avocado, spinach and hazel nuts. Get more vitamin E with sweet potato, sunflower seeds, olive oil, and butternut squash.

Evening Primrose Oil

The supplement evening primrose oil has been shown to work as a natural anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown that evening primrose oil may improve rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. It contains high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids, like omega-6 fatty acids and GLA.

Always consult with a doctor before adding new oils or vitamins to your regimen.

In my practice we typically leverage EPO during the second half of a woman’s cycles.

Hormone-Friendly Diet

Diet affects every part of your health and lifestyle. If you are struggling with a hormone imbalance, making a few small changes in your diet can often effectively improve your symptoms.  

For breast tenderness, I recommend trying an anti-inflammatory diet, as inflammation is a key contributor to PMS symptoms. This means avoiding gluten, dairy, sugar, and processed foods, which all cause inflammation and upset your body’s hormonal balance. I recommend doing this for at least 6-8 weeks; note if your symptoms improve after 2 cycles.

Increasing fiber in your diet can also be highly beneficial. Fiber helps remove excess toxins and hormones—like estrogen—from your body. Bowel regulation means hormonal regulation, which means no more breast tenderness. So make sure you’re eating plenty of veggies to keep your bathroom trips regular.

Consider decreasing the amount of caffeine you consume if you’re  experiencing breast pain. The methylxanthines present in coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate may contribute to inflammation and pain. Moreover, studies have supported that caffeine restriction can be an effective means of breast pain management in fibrocystic breast disease.

I recommend a whole foods diet with lots of vegetables! Consuming a protein-heavy breakfast will keep you full, maintain stable blood sugar and feel energized throughout the day, while also helping to regulate hormones. A whole foods diet with high quality protein, fats and vegetables The Paleo diet also has significant anti-inflammatory benefits that can improve PMS symptoms and breast pain.

Here’s a sample This is my favorite diet while suffering from breast tenderness:

Supportive Bras

Get a well fitted, comfortable bra that provides support. Even movements like walking or lying on your stomach can injure your breasts, so you always want to ensure proper support. Love your ladies and they’ll love you back.

Make Time to Chill

As discussed, stress makes breast tenderness worse. When you reduce your stress levels, you can decrease cortisol and balance out your hormones. Relaxation, especially yoga, also helps minimize inflammation and PMS. Try meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking a bubble bath, or walking. Even doing something fun with friends and family can help you fight breast tenderness in no time.

Get Moving!

Exercising regularly is an effective way to begin balancing estrogen. Adipocytes (fat cells) produce estrogen and estrogen in turn stimulates fat cells to grow. This is why exercise is crucial to maintaining your hormones and reducing breast tenderness.  Reducing estrogen levels helps regulate the imbalance of hormones that can cause PMS symptoms. Moreover, maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial to overall health and wellness.      

Get Help for Breast Tenderness

If your breast tenderness persists, then it is time to dig deeper and find your root cause. Meeting with a licensed practitioner can not only help you eliminate your pain, it can also ensure you’re getting the most individualized treatment.

Breast tenderness can be treated with natural, effective solutions. You just need to know the right treatments for your type of breast pain. One important step you can take today is to begin tracking your symptoms. This can help your doctor figure out the cause and treatment of your pain.

Start becoming your own hormone detective by keeping a journal of your pain. Take note when you start feeling the tenderness:

  • Where is it?
  • How long does it last?
  • How severe is it on a scale of 1-10?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • When is your period?
  • Do you have any skin changes?
  • How does the pain impact your life?

In my root cause women’s medicine clinic, Rubus Health, we take a team approach to patient care and partner with our patients to ensure their success in healing their body. 

Stop dealing with breast tenderness and other painful symptoms today! Apply to be a patient to get you started on your journey towards optimal health.   

 

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten is a licensed Functional Medicine Naturopathic Doctor, best selling author, speaker, and mother. Dr. Brighten specializes in women’s health, from fertility to postpartum care, adrenal and thyroid support, autoimmune conditions, and digestive disorders. In her patient centered practice, Dr. Brighten thrives on navigating the space between conventional and alternative medicine, all while working with patients to help them achieve optimum balance, health, and happiness.