Breast pain: Causes, treatment, and prevention

While breast pain can be distressing, it's not always a sign of breast cancer. What causes breast pain, and how can you prevent or treat this symptom? Find out below.

A lady experiencing breast pain (tenderness) due to menstrual cycle hormonal fluctuations

Key Takeaways

  • The different causes of breast pain include hormonal fluctuations, ill-fitting bras, rib injuries, mastitis, and costochondritis. 
  • Seeking counseling from a professional therapist is one practical way to deal with and cope with the psychological effects of breast pain. 
  • Prioritize your health by visiting a doctor when you experience specific breast pain symptoms, like breast lumps or new or unexplained pain.

Medically known as mastalgia, breast pain is a common health concern that causes tenderness, discomfort, or pain around the breast area. Some people may describe breast pain as a feeling of tightness, heaviness, or a subtle burning sensation that occurs in one or both breasts.

Breast pain comes in two types – cyclical breast pain, which is related to the menstrual cycle, and non-cyclical breast pain, which can happen anytime during the month.

Contrary to what most people think, pain or tenderness in your breast(s) does not always mean early signs of breast cancer. Our aim for this article is to provide you with a clear understanding of breast pain, its causes, and when to seek treatment. 

Causes of Breast Pain

Some potential causes of breast pain include:

1. Hormonal Fluctuations

Hormonal fluctuations play a significant role in the development of breast pain. It often occurs during the period when estrogen and progesterone levels naturally rise and fall. These hormones have a direct impact on breast tissue. Estrogen, in particular, promotes the growth of milk ducts and granular tissue in the breasts. This growth can result in breast fullness and sensitivity. 

2. Ill-fitting Bras

Bras that lack adequate support do not distribute the weight of the breasts evenly. Wearing such poorly fitting bras, especially those that are too tight or lack proper support, can contribute to saggy breasts and may put pressure on the breast tissue. This pressure causes inflammation and discomfort in the breast, thus intensifying the pain experienced. 

3. Rib Injuries or Fractures

The ribs provide structural support and protection to the chest. When the ribs are damaged, the pain can extend to the chest wall, including the breast area. The pain from rib injuries or fractures can be felt as a dull ache, sharp stabbing sensations, or a constant throbbing discomfort in the breast area. It may worsen with movement, deep breathing, or pressure on the chest.

Different reasons rib fractures may happen include falls, car accidents, or sports-related incidents. In some cases, physical therapy may be needed to aid recovery.

4. Mastitis

Mastitis affects about 10 percent of breastfeeding mothers within the first few weeks after giving birth. One of the factors that contribute to the development of mastitis is engorgement, which can put pressure on the milk ducts and increase the risk of pain and infection. 

Aside from breast pain, people with mastitis may also experience other symptoms, such as swelling, redness, fever, and chills. 

5. Costochondritis

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone. It can cause sharp breast pain that many people may mistake for a heart-related issue. The pain from costochondritis may worsen if you cough, sneeze, take a deep breath, or engage in strenuous physical activity.

6. Chest Muscle Strain

Straining the muscles in the chest wall, or pectoral muscles, can result in breast soreness and pain. Muscle strains can occur due to strenuous physical activity or heavy lifting. 

During these activities, the chest muscles can be subjected to excessive force. This can result in damage to the muscle fibers, which causes pain. The severity of the pain can vary depending on the extent of the muscle strain.  

7. Breast Cysts

As breasts age, a process called involution occurs, where fat gradually replaces some of the breast tissue. This transformation can lead to the development of cysts and fibrous tissue called fibrocystic breast tissue.

Breast cysts typically grow in the upper and outer areas of the breasts. They feel like lumps and may tend to grow bigger during the menstrual period. 

8. Mammary Duct Ectasia

Mammary duct ectasia is a condition that causes your milk ducts to widen and thicken. While this condition barely comes with symptoms, some people may experience breast tenderness, nipple discharge, and pain. Mammary duct ectasia primarily affects those who are approaching menopause. 

9. Breast Injury

Whether from accidents, sports activities, or breast surgery, breast injuries can cause pain. The pain may be accompanied by bruising, swelling, and tenderness. 

If you have a breast injury, It's essential to watch for certain signs that may indicate a more severe condition. For example, feeling a lump, redness, or warmth in the breast could indicate an infection.

10. Breastfeeding

As a nursing mom, one of the things you must understand is that breastfeeding can sometimes result in breast pain. A few factors, like incorrect latching, can contribute to the pain at the beginning of a breastfeeding session. 

Once you feel any discomfort or pain while breastfeeding, consider repositioning your baby.

What is the Treatment for Breast Pain?

Regardless of the type of breast pain, these treatment options may help you alleviate and manage the pain effectively:

1. Wear supportive bras and proper fitting

During physical activities or daily movements, unsupported breast movement can intensify pain, especially if the breasts are tender. Wearing a supportive bra that fits correctly can help minimize breast pain by reducing movement, providing comfort, distributing weight evenly, and offering lift and support. It's advisable to get professionally fitted to ensure you wear the right size.

2. Apply Warm Compresses

Warm compresses can be particularly beneficial for nursing mothers experiencing breast engorgement, a condition where the breasts become overly full and swollen due to an accumulation of milk. 

Breast engorgement can be highly uncomfortable and even painful. This is why warm compresses are sometimes necessary to help relax the breast tissue, unclog milk ducts, and ease the pain.

3. Adopt lifestyle changes

If the pain in your breast is linked to factors like diet, physical activity, and stress, then it might be time to adopt some changes in your lifestyle. You can start by engaging in regular exercise that can help improve circulation, reduce stress, and promote overall well-being. Lifestyle changes may not relieve breast pain immediately, so you have to be patient with the process.

4. Seeking Counseling

Breast pain, especially when its cause is unclear, may lead to emotional distress, anxiety, and frustration. Talking to a trained therapist may provide a safe and supportive space to express these emotions and receive validation and understanding.

Counseling will also teach you coping mechanisms to manage the emotional and psychological impact of breast pain. These strategies may include relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and stress-reduction exercises.

How to Prevent Breast Pain

To help prevent breast pain, here are some important tips you can follow:

  • Practice good breastfeeding techniques if you’re nursing.
  • Avoid carrying heavy bags on your shoulders or wearing tight clothing that compresses your breasts.
  • Speak to your doctor about managing hormonal changes through lifestyle modifications or medications, if necessary.
  • Practice good posture to avoid putting unnecessary strain on your chest and back muscles.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Seeking medical attention for breast pain is crucial because it ensures you get a proper diagnosis and treatment if needed. You should consult a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Breast lumps 
  • New or unexplained breast pain
  • Emotional distress
  • Severe breast pain during pregnancy or breastfeeding


Understanding the factors contributing to breast pain is essential for your overall well-being. This article has shed light on different ways to protect yourself from this condition, from maintaining good posture to avoiding heavy lifting and poorly fitted bras. 

Always remember that there are many possible causes of breast pain. As soon as you feel any pain in your breast, do not hesitate to consult your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.


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