Breast Pain and Breast Cancer

Dr. Geetha

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Geetha Nagasree (MBBS, MD)
September 17, 2020

Breast Pain

Breast pain: Many women wonder whether their breast pain might be due to breast cancer. It’s a legitimate concern – thanks to undue hype created by rampant information. But it’s not always the case.

The Big question here is – In which context breast pain could be a sign of breast cancer.

The next question is – Is it breast pain or something else that determines breast cancer?

What else could cause breast pain?

Is it possible to know the cause by yourself or do you need to see a gynaecologist to determine the cause? 

Like this you may have plenty of questions in your mind.

Rather than worrying too much about breast pain and breast cancer, it is better to know what exactly could be the cause of your breast pain.

Different Causes of Breast Pain

Let us try to find out! And gain more insights about the different causes of breast pain.

Breast pain is also known as mastalgia. It is a common problem in women of all ages – which means, a majority of women are most likely to experience breast pain during their lifetime. To be more precise here, a woman can experience breast pain before and during menstruation, during pregnancy, lactation and the days leading up to menopause and after menopause. In other words, breast pain can affect a woman anytime during her entire lifetime and more prominently during her reproductive period.

The next question is…

What does it mean to have breast pain?

Breast pain can be linked to periods (menstruation) – cyclic breast pain; not related to menstrual cycle (non-cyclic); and can originate from outside the breast but seems to emanate from the breast (extramammary breast pain). In addition, breast pain can also be due to other causes including breast cancer as well.

Cyclical breast pain or breast pain linked to periods (menstruation)

The changing hormonal levels during periods can cause breast pain. In most cases, the pain goes away on its own when the period starts, but can persist during periods or may come back again. Sometimes, Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is also associated with the breast pain.

This type of pain is mostly common in women in their 20s and 30s and also in women who are in their 40s (approaching menopause).

The pain can be just for a few days in a month beginning 2 to 3 days before periods or a few days leading up to periods. It affects both the breast and looks normal, mild to moderate.

The pain can be for a week or longer each month – starts before period and may also continue throughout menstrual cycle. It affects both the breast and looks moderate to severe. Cyclic breast pain doesn’t persist throughout the month.

If the pain lats or persist throughout the month, then it is not related to menstrual cycle.

This type of breast pain usually stops after menopause.

Symptoms of cyclical breast pain

  • Breasts feel heavy, lumpy and achy
  • You may feel heaviness a few days before your period
  • Breast Discomfort, feeling of tightness
  • You may feel your breast tender and sore to touch
  • The pain can be mild to severe
  • Stabbing, prickling or burning pain
  • You will feel experience pain in both the breasts or one breast
  • The pain can radiate to shoulder blade, arm and down the arm.

Note: pain radiating to jaw, shoulder, neck, arm can also be a sign of heart attack in women (link). During a typical cyclical breast pain episode, the pain from the outer and upper areas of your breast can radiate to the armpits.

Non-cyclic Breast Pain

It is not related to menstrual cycle. Changes in the milk glands or milk ducts can cause noncyclic breast pain. For instance, breast cysts, breast surgery, breast trauma or any other factors that are localized to breast can cause breast pain. This type of breast pain can also start outside the breast (muscles surrounding the breast, chest wall and ribs) and radiates to the breast. Breast cyst may or may not cause breast pain. They are mostly non-cancerous.

Symptoms of non-cyclic breast pain

  • Constant pain
  • Persistent or intermittent pain
  • Mostly felt as burning pain
  • Tightness and soreness
  • Mostly felt in one breast
  • Mostly localized, and diffused
  • Can be felt as localized or diffused (spreads across the breast)
  • Mostly affects women after menopause

Extramammary (outside the breast) breast pain

In this type of breast pain that begins elsewhere or outside the breast, the affected woman feels as if the pain is from the breast tissue. Muscle spasms, muscle sprains or pulling a muscle close to chest – in the neck, shoulder and rib cage can also lead to breast pain. The pain in the chest wall or rib cage radiates to the breast and looks like breast pain.

Costochondritis is an inflammatory condition of the cartilage that joins ribs and breastbone. It is a type of arthritic condition wherein the numbness or chest pain seems to be emanating from the breast. The affected woman feels like a burning sensation in the breast. It is most often confused with breast pain, but it is actually not. Costochondritis is common in women above 40 years of age.

Other Causes of Breast Pain


An infection of the milk ducts (mastitis) causes breast pain. The pain is strong and severe. The other symptoms include blisters, cracks, itching and burning sensation in the nipples; fever, chills and red streaks on the breasts. A gynaecologist treats this condition with antibiotics.

Other health Conditions

Sometimes certain health issues that are not related to breast or chest can also cause breast pain. For instance, gallstones, some heart conditions, indigestion, heartburn, and chest muscle spasms can cause chest pain that spreads to breast tissue. Though the pain is not linked with breast, it looks like breast pain.

Breast Size

Large and heavy breasts can cause breast pain and this type of pain is often associated with chest, neck, shoulder and back pain. The muscles holding breast tissue feel the strain and cause breast pain.

Breast Surgery

Women who have had undergone breast surgery to treat breast cancer may experience breast pain after surgery and after incisions have healed.

Wearing an improper (non-supportive) Bra

Women who don’t wear well-fitted and supportive bra during the day, during any sporting activity or exercise seem to experience breast pain. A supportive and well-fitted bra can ease the pain.

Stress and anxiety can also be linked to breast pain.

Use of certain medications

Tenderness in your breast may be due to oestrogen and progesterone hormonal therapies. Women who undergo HRT (hormone replacement therapy) after menopause often experience breast pain. Certain, psychotic and psychiatric medicines can also cause breast pain – for instance, SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and other antidepressants. Some medicines used for infertility treatment, certain steroids and diuretics can also cause breast pain. Use of contraceptives that contains hormones can also cause breast pain.

Breast Pain due to Breast Cancer

Breast pain, nipple pain and inflammation in the breast are not always the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. In some cases, breast inflammation, breast and nipple pain may be due to breast infection. The other symptoms of breast infection include redness, swelling and fever. Even if you think that it is a breast infection, you should consult your gynaecologist to rule out any other serious condition like inflammatory breast cancer that mimics the signs of breast infection.

Most of the times breast cancer often go unnoticed and thus grows silently as majority of the warning signs and symptoms are either subtle or silent. Moreover, in the initial stages of breast cancer, no apparent signs and symptoms manifest.

However, breast discomfort and pain could be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer, if you notice the following signs associated with it.

  • Breast pain which is constant and persistent
  • Breast pain which is localized
  • Changes in breast size and shape
  • Retracted breast nipple, distorted or pulled nipple
  • Redness, darkening and swelling of breast
  • A rash or sore on the nipple
  • Unusual discharge – other than milk
  • Appearance of prominent veins on breast
  • Dimpling of breast skin and pain in one breast
  • A lump in the breast with pain
  • A lump in the underarm

Now the biggest question here is…

can a lump in the breast be a warning sign of breast cancer?

The answer is obviously no, unless a lump in the breast is linked with persistent breast pain and the above signs and symptoms. Majority of women can easily detect physical abnormalities in their breast if they know how to do breast self-examination. During breast self-examination, if they detect any abnormality, they will consult a gynaec oncologist for clinical breast examination. Awareness is therefore very important for the early detection of breast cancer in women.

Although, in majority of the cases your breast pain is a minor problem – it should be addressed and evaluated if it is not related to your cycles. In a nutshell, persistent breast pain without any reason needs your attention. I think, by now, you might have understood as to when should you see your lady doctor for a clinical breast examination to ensure that it is not something serious to worry about.

Take care of your breast. If you have any other issues related to your breast pain that have not been covered here, let us know – our experts will cover those issues as well. If you like the post, do comment and share!


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