There can be many causes of breast pain, some more serious than others. Menstruation is a common cause, as is pregnancy and breastfeeding. It can also be caused by an infection, fatty acid imbalance and, less commonly, it can be a sign of breast cancer.
The hormone changes that accompany menstruation along with water retention can cause breast pain. Immediately before menstruation begins, a woman's body is flooded with hormones that can increase both the size of the breast and its sensitivity, thus making the area feel heavy and sore. Discomfort typically decreases towards the end of a woman's cycle.
One of the most common early signs of pregnancy is breast pain. As with menstruation, the sudden increase in hormones that occurs with pregnancy can cause breast tenderness. As pregnancy progresses, the milk ducts begin preparing for breastfeeding. Many women experience a significant increase in breast size, anywhere from two to three cup sizes, during the second and third trimester. This rapid increase in size can strain the muscles behind the breast as well as stretch the skin, causing the area to be much more sensitive. Wearing a wire-free, cotton bra with thick straps can help ease some of the aching.
Breast pain is extremely common during the first month or two of breastfeeding. When a woman's milk comes in, which can cause encouragement, it often makes the breasts hard and very sore. Nursing on demand and fully draining at least one breast per feeding can help to eliminate this problem as well as regulate milk production. Once a breastfeeding relationship is well established, milk production regulates and breast pain is typically eliminated.
An infection in the breast, known as mastitis, can also be a cause of breast pain. While most common in women who are nursing, it can also occur in women who are not. The infection causes swelling of the breast tissue, which in turn places pressure on the milk ducts, thereby causing extreme discomfort. The pain is typically accompanied by flu-like symptoms, including fever, aching, and fatigue; mastitis is typically treated with a two week round of antibiotics.
A fatty acid imbalance causes the tissue in the breast to be much more sensitive to hormones which can result in breast soreness. This health issue is typically much more noticeable immediately before menstruation, although it typically does not go away at the end of a woman's cycle. For treatment, doctors typically recommend taking a daily dose of evening primrose oil, which is thought to help restore the balance of fatty acid.
In rare cases, breast pain can be a sign of breast cancer. A tumor can put increased pressure on the tissue and milk ducts in the breast; this can cause soreness, tenderness, or sharp pain depending on the location. Any unusual or sudden occurrence of breast pain should always be discussed with a doctor to determine the severity of the situation.