Breast Tenderness: Causes and Treatment for Breast Pain

Medically Reviewed By Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI
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Breast tenderness, also called mastalgia, is one of the most common health concerns for females. Some describe it as a dull, aching pain, while others feel heaviness, tightness, or a burning sensation. Tenderness can be in both breasts or just one. The pain can be constant or cyclical. Breast tenderness or pain can occur for a number of reasons, many of which are not a cause for concern. However, a tender breast may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as breast cancer.

Read on to learn more about breast tenderness and what could be causing it. This guide also explains when to contact a doctor and describes home remedies to relieve breast pain.

Sex and gender terms

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “female,” “woman,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth.

What is breast tenderness?

there is a close up photo of a woman wearing a red bra
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Breast tenderness affects about 70% of females (assigned at birth) during their lifetime. Some people describe the pain as a dull ache that comes and goes. Others experience intense, constant pain that interferes with their life.

In many cases, the exact cause of the pain is never determined. For most people, the cause is not cancer. A complete medical history and physical exam by a medical professional can rule out the possibility of cancer.

If you experience breast tenderness and do not know the cause, contact your doctor for an examination. If necessary, they will arrange for tests to rule out any serious underlying conditions.

Cyclical and noncyclical breast pain

Breast pain can be cyclical or noncyclical:

Cyclical pain: You experience cyclical pain as part of your menstrual cycle. The pain starts 1–2 weeks before your period and goes away during or after your period. The pain can also accompany breast swelling. Cyclical pain usually occurs in both breasts.

Noncyclical pain: This pain is not associated with your menstrual cycle. Noncyclical pain is less common and has many possible causes, including injury to the breast tissue, surgery, or infection.

Changes to the breast tissue, such as a breast cyst or a fibroadenoma, can cause noncyclical pain. Typically described as sharp, burning breast pain, it may be constant or intermittent. This pain may also occur in only one breast.

What causes breast tenderness?

In many cases, the underlying reason for breast tenderness remains a mystery. However, there are some factors known to cause breast tenderness.

Hormone fluctuations

During puberty, fluctuations of estrogen in the body can cause breast tenderness and growth.

For many females, it is common to have breast pain related to their period. The hormone levels in your blood increase 1–2 weeks before your period. The hormones stimulate the breast ducts and cause the breasts to retain water. The excess fluid leads to tenderness and swelling.

The pain goes away 1–2 days after your period starts.

As you get closer to menopause, your hormone levels change again. This can cause the breast tissue to feel tender and even lumpy.

Certain medications

While the reason is unknown, certain medications may cause breast tenderness. These medications include:

If you are taking hormones, such as oral contraceptives or menopausal hormone therapy, your breast tissue may become denser and have some tenderness.

Changes in breast tissue

Inflammation or structural changes in the anatomy of your breast tissue may cause tenderness. A few common causes of this are:

  • breast cyst
  • fat necrosis due to trauma
  • mastitis
  • breast abscess
  • duct ectasia, fluid buildup from a blocked milk duct

Pregnancy and nursing

During pregnancy, your breasts may grow, feel lumpy, and have some tenderness. This is because the milk glands in your breasts are increasing in number and getting larger.

While you are nursing your baby, your breasts are filling with milk. This can cause some sharp tingling feelings during milk letdown. Your breasts will also be fuller during this time, which can cause them to be tender.

Sometimes while nursing, a milk duct becomes blocked and leads to an infection. This is called mastitis. Your breast may feel warm and painful, and it may have some redness. Common treatment for mastitis includes antibiotics.

Learn more about mastitis here.

Lifestyle choices

Some lifestyle choices are associated with causing breast tenderness. These can include:

  • eating food with a high fat content
  • smoking
  • drinking caffeinated beverages
  • experiencing emotional stress

Your doctor can offer advice to help you manage lifestyle choices, such as a plan for dietary changes or for reducing smoking.

Learn more about causes of breast problems.

When should I contact a doctor?

Alongside breast tenderness, let your doctor know if:

  • pain relievers do not help reduce tenderness or pain
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • any part of your breast feels swollen and hot to the touch
  • there is a history of breast cancer in your family
  • you notice itchy, red, scaled, dimpled, or puckered skin on your breast

Request an urgent appointment with your doctor or seek medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • changes in the shape of one or both breasts
  • a hard lump in your breast that does not move around
  • nipple discharge, which may or may not be streaked with blood
  • dimpled skin on your breast, similar to the texture of an orange peel
  • a rash around the nipple
  • a nipple that has sunk into your breast

Find out more about symptoms of breast cancer.

How will a doctor diagnose the cause of breast tenderness?

Your doctor will take a full health history and review the medications, vitamins, and supplements you take.

Your doctor will also ask you questions about your breast tenderness, including:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What is the pain like?
  • Is the pain constant, or does it come and go?
  • Does the pain radiate anywhere else?
  • Have you noticed any discharge from your breast?
  • Have you had any trauma to your breast?

Your doctor will carry out a physical exam and will arrange for breast screening, such as a mammogram, if necessary.

Breast screening

Breast screening typically involves an X-ray of your breasts. This is known as a mammogram.

During a mammography, your radiographer will take two X-rays from each breast, one from the side and one from above. This will help to detect any cancers that are too small for you to see or feel.

It can take a few weeks for test results to come back. About 4 in 100 females require further testing. However, this does not necessarily mean that cancer is present.

Find out more about what happens during a mammogram.

Ways to reduce breast tenderness at home

If an underlying condition is causing your breast tenderness, your doctor will advise you on the best treatment.

If lifestyle or hormone fluctuations are causing the tenderness, the following at-home treatments may help to relieve the pain.

Wear a bra that fits

Be sure you are wearing a bra that fits you well and gives you enough support. If you have larger breasts, you may need a sports bra with the right fit for enough support. When wearing bras and breast garments that fit correctly, 60–70% of females report pain relief.

Apply a compress

Try a hot or cold compress to soothe the pain, particularly before you go to sleep. Make sure not to apply anything directly to the skin.

Take over-the-counter medication

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you on the best one for you.

Make dietary changes

Reducing your caffeine intake and eating low fat foods that are high in fiber and vitamins may help reduce pain.

Other frequently asked questions

What is the main cause of breast tenderness?

The main cause of breast tenderness is cyclical pain that is associated with your period. Each month your body goes through a cycle of hormones. About 1–2 weeks before your period starts, you have an increase of estrogen in your body, which can cause breast tenderness until a day or two after your period starts.

What kind of breast pain indicates pregnancy?

Normal cyclical breast tenderness goes away after your period starts. If you are pregnant, your breasts may become more tender, veins may be more visible, and the nipples may darken and become harder.

What is the difference between breast tenderness before a period vs. during early pregnancy?

There is not much difference. Both occur because of hormonal changes in your body causing your breasts to enlarge. If you are not pregnant, your period will start and the breast tenderness will go away. During early pregnancy, your period will not start and your breast tenderness will last much longer.

Summary

Breast tenderness usually is not a cause for concern. It often occurs as a result of natural changes in your body, such as hormone fluctuations.

In some cases, breast tenderness may be a sign of an underlying condition, such as breast cancer. A radiographer will be able to perform a mammogram, or breast X-ray, to detect signs of cancer.

You can alleviate breast tenderness at home by wearing a bra that fits well, applying a compress to the tender area, and making dietary changes.

Contact your doctor if you experience breast tenderness that you cannot explain. They will be able to examine you and arrange for any necessary tests.

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Medical Reviewer: Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI
Last Review Date: 2022 May 31
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