Doctors Share When Breast Pain Is Normal (And When It’s Not)

Is it ever OK to feel breast tenderness? Are there certain kinds of pain that are an instant red flag? Here’s what to know.

A random pain in your breast is always scary and shocking. Worst-case scenarios probably cross your mind, causing you to panic about breast cancer, a disease that’s diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of people every year and causes tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S.

Breast cancer is concerning, and as much as medical interventions like mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies and genetic testing are here to help get ahead of the disease, it’s still hard not to worry when you notice something like breast pain.

“The most important thing … to know is that breast pain is quite common,” said Dr. Marleen Meyers, a medical oncologist and the director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program at NYU Langone Health.

“In many instances, it is not related to any significant pathology. But you can also never say that breast pain is not secondary to cancer,” Meyers added.

Experts say that there are different kinds of breast pain, and while it’s never a good idea to ignore discomfort, certain experience should result in an immediate doctor’s visit. Here’s what to know about the various kinds of breast pain and physicians’ recommendations for care.

Generally, discomfort that occurs at the same time every month isn’t very concerning.

“I would say the most common type of breast pain is related to menstrual period,” Meyers said. “In that instance, you get a clear history of, yes, I have a lot of breast pain, which is cyclic, which tends to occur like the week or two before the menstrual period.”

Pain related to menstruation is often dull or aching, and can also be associated with breast swelling. It’s not usually a sharp pain, according to Meyers.

And in the case of period-related pain, “usually it’s going to affect both breasts,” she added.

Breast pain can be a sign of pregnancy.

For many people, breast soreness is one of the first signs of pregnancy.

In fact, a 2013 study found that 76% of pregnant people experienced breast pain or tenderness in their first trimester.

According to Verywell Health, this kind of pain may cause a feeling of heaviness, tenderness or tingling in the breasts, and your nipples may be the most tender part.

Caffeine can contribute to breast pain as well.

“Caffeine can be a trigger for breast pain in a lot of women — so, there are women who are just very sensitive to caffeine,” said Dr. Regina Hampton, a breast surgeon in the Washington, D.C., area.

This means coffee, caffeinated teas, soda and energy drinks can all be a reason behind people’s breast tenderness, according to Hampton.

“Usually, to try and figure that out, we have them do a trial of either cutting down the caffeine or eliminating it altogether,” she said. Restricting caffeine intake (or avoiding it entirely) can relieve this kind of pain.

Pain that is not associated with those factors is concerning.

Experts say pain that is seemingly random is more worrisome. If it’s not timed with your menstrual cycle, pregnancy or caffeine, you should pay attention.

This kind of pain may be sharper, Meyers said. So it will likely feel more painful than cyclical tenderness and can be more persistent, too. “It can be constant or it can be intermittent,” she added.

Additionally, if it’s discomfort in just one breast that goes on for weeks, you should see a doctor.

Breast pain that aligns with factors like your period generally occurs in both boobs.

“Often, the more concerning breast pain would be if it is localized to one breast rather than both breasts,” Meyers explained.

Specifically, if the pain occurs in the same spot in one breast and you notice a lump, thickness or fullness, you should immediately see a doctor, she said.

Another concerning feature of breast pain is if it lasts for more than a couple of weeks, Meyers noted — especially when it gets worse as time progresses. This would be another reason to arrange immediate medical attention.

Pain that lasts for weeks is not normal and should be addressed by your doctor.
CATHERINE MCQUEEN VIA GETTY IMAGES/Pain that lasts for weeks is not normal and should be addressed by your doctor.

Pain that is just not what you’re used to should also be evaluated.

You know your body best, so you probably know when something feels off. Hampton said it’s important that people listen to that gut feeling.

“Concerning pain would be pain that’s just out of the ordinary from what they’re used to experiencing,” she said.

“Anything that just looks or doesn’t feel normal … is something that should be checked out,” Hampton added. Your doctor may arrange a mammogram or ultrasound to learn more about what’s going on.

By examining your breasts regularly, you can get to know your body even better.

“I’m still a big proponent of women doing their own breast self-exams. I know in the literature [and] in the media, it’s a little all over the place: One minute they’re telling women to do it, [and another] minute they’re telling women not to do it,” Hampton explained. “But I think we live with ourselves every day, we know our breasts every day … we don’t see our doctor every day. So, it’s important to be able to check for changes.”

When looking for any changes, you can learn what your boobs feel like and when tenderness is normal for you, Hampton added.

Overall, take breast pain seriously but don’t panic.

“Most breast cancers don’t present with pain,” Hampton said. “Hopefully they present with nothing, and we just find something on their regular annual mammogram.”

But even though boob pain isn’t usually a sign of cancer, that doesn’t mean you should discount it.

“While it is not one of the most common signs of breast cancer, it also can’t be ignored,” Meyers said.

In other words, if you have any breast pain, it’s important to let your doctor know so they can determine the best plan of action. Even if the pain appears to be associated with your period, it is still a good idea to bring it up with your doctor so they’re aware. This way, they can either help with potential solutions (like less caffeine) or get you scheduled for any necessary tests.

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