Breast Pain: What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Discomfort or tenderness in one or both of the breasts is known as breast pain, or mastalgia. It’s normal for a woman’s breasts to change throughout her life, and breast pain is normal in certain stages of life. There is, however, a difference between normal breast pain and breast pain that could indicate a more serious health problem.

What is normal breast pain?

Women may experience breast pain during puberty, menstruation, premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy, menopause, and after childbirth. Breast pain felt during these times is considered normal. Breast pain associated with menstrual periods – called cyclic breast pain – normally goes away on its own. Some swelling and tenderness is normal before or during the hormone fluctuations that occur during menstruation.

Fibrocystic breast changes may also cause breast pain. Fibrocystic breasts may contain lumps or cysts that can grow tender leading up to a menstrual period.

Some women experience breast pain during breast feeding. Breast pain may occur when breasts swell with milk, or other complications from breast feeding. Meeting with a lactation consultant can help.

Other factors that can contribute to breast pain include breast size, diet, smoking, breast surgeries, and certain medications.

When should you see a doctor for breast pain?

While breast pain is common, and is normal in many cases, there are times when breast pain requires medical attention:

  • Sudden breast pain
  • Breast pain accompanied by other symptoms, such as nipple discharge
  • Non-cyclical breast pain (breast pain that does not coincide with menstrual periods)
  • Breast pain that does not go away
  • Breast pain that gets worse
  • Debilitating breast pain

Does breast pain indicate breast cancer?

While breast pain can indicate breast cancer, it is not a common symptom of breast cancer. However, pain with other symptoms like nipple discharge, lumps, thickening of the skin, change in size or shape, or changes in texture or appearance of the skin should be evaluated by your primary care physician as they could indicate cancer or other, benign problems.

If you experience any of these symptoms, including breast pain, contact your primary care physician.

Of course, breast cancer doesn’t always show symptoms. It’s possible for a woman to have breast cancer without even knowing it. That’s why screening is so important in preventing breast cancer. The Breast Center recommends annual screening mammograms starting at age 40.