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Breast Pain: Cyclical and Noncyclical

Understand And Recognize Two Main Types of Breast Pain

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Updated February 28, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Breast pain can be anything from a vague feeling of tenderness, to a dull ache, to a constant, throbbing pain.  Episodes of breast pain may come on a regular schedule, may happen only once, or may endure for long periods of time.  Most cases of breast cancer are not associated with breast pain.  You may have heard breast pain referred to as mastodynia, mastalgia, mammalgia, or mastitis.  Here are the two main types of breast pain.

Cyclical Breast Pain

Cyclical Breast Pain and Menstrual Cycle
Art © Pam Stephan

Cyclical breast pain happens during a woman's menstrual cycle.  A range of sensations in both breasts can accompany the hormonal ebb and flow that a premenopausal woman normally experiences.  Those of us who have had premenstrual syndrome -- PMS -- know the feeling of achy, swelling breasts that starts before your period and goes on until your menses have stopped. Cyclical breast pain can be due to fibrocystic breast changes, but may also be due to mammary duct ectasia -- two benign breast conditions.

Noncyclical Breast Pain

Noncyclical breast pain is also known as trigger zone pain.  With noncyclical breast pain, you will feel pain in one specific area, and it will be unrelated to your menstrual cycle.  This noncyclical breast pain may occur in only one breast, but may affect both breasts.  This kind of pain also varies in intensity and may be caused not by hormones, but by illness or injury; internal changes brought on by pregnancy, weight gain, or breast surgery; or certain medications.  Hormonal medications, such as HRT or birth control pills, will cause changes in your breast sensitivity.  Wearing an ill-fitting bra can cause breast pain, but it won't cause breast cancer.  In only 5 out of 100 cases of cancer, pain is linked to a breast tumor.

Pain Near Your Breast

Your breasts rest on your chest wall muscles and ribs.  Breasts are threaded through with nerves, blood vessels and connective tissues.  If you feel noncyclical pain in the middle of your chest, it may be due to arthritis -- try some ibuprofen for the pain.  Sometimes you may pull a muscle in your chest and pain will appear beneath one breast.  Again, this isn't breast pain, and should fade as the muscle recovers.  Nerves can get pinched, veins can become inflamed, but anti-inflammatory medications can help resolve this pain.

How To Handle Breast Pain

If you are premenopausal, you can understand the nature of your breast pain by keeping a chart of your cycle and tracking your pain.  Review the chart to see if you have cyclical or noncyclical breast pain.  See your doctor if your pain persists in order to have a clinical breast exam and get proper medications or treatments if those are needed.  And if your body and breasts have changed, perhaps it is time for a bra fitting session and some pretty, supportive, new bras.

Sources:

Breast Pain; Pp. 77-85. Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. Susan M. Love, M.D. Fifth Edition, 2010.

Breast Pain. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. National Institutes of Health. Last Updated: 12/31/2008.

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