How to treat breast pain

Breast pain - known as mastalgia - affects two out of three women at some point in their lives. For some, it appears as a mild niggle or dull ache, for others it can become so severe the slightest knock is agony.

Here, we look at the treatments for cyclical and non-cyclical breast pain


Evening primrose oil: It is thought that women who suffer from cyclical breast pain have low levels of gamolenic acid (GLA) - fatty acids found in our bodies which affects the way our bodies respond to its own hormones causing greater breast sensitivity.

Three quarters of women who suffer from cyclical breast pain find boosting levels of gamolenic acid helps ease symptoms. The best treatment is evening primrose oil which contains the active ingredient GLA. However, evening primrose oil bought from the chemist is unlikely to contain enough GLA to work effectively.

Doctors usually prescribe between 240-320mg a day throughout the cycle - which can take up to three months before feeling the full benefit.

Pain killers: Some women gain relief by taking simple painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen but they are generally only of value in milder cases. Antibiotics, diuretics (water tablets) and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) are not effective for breast pain.

Danazol: If you are still in pain after four months, you might consider stronger hormone tablet treatments which are prescribed by your GP. Danazol works by counteracting your own hormones. The once daily dosage can be adjusted to relieve symptoms, however higher doses carry the risk of possible side-effects such as weight gain, nausea, greasy skin and deepening of the voice. Pregnancy should be avoided during treatment as this treatment could damage the foetus. Danazol should not be combined with the Pill, so to avoid pregnancy during treatment, use other methods of contraception.

Bromocriptine: This hormone tablet is taken once or twice daily. Possible side-effects include dizziness, nausea or constipation. Pregnancy should be avoided during treatment as treatment could damage the foetus. Bromocriptine should not be combined with the Pill, so use barrier methods.

Treatment with hormones is generally continued for six months and many women will need no further treatment. Using a pain chart - where you log your pain on a daily basis - also helps you and your doctor to determine how well the treatment is working.


Ibuprofen: Non-cyclical breast pain caused by inflammation of the joint between the top rib and breastbone - a condition called Tietze's syndrome - can make the breast bone feel sore and tender. Dr Eleanor Clarke, adviser to breast care campaign recommends ibuprofen - a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ideal for muscular pain relief.

Ibuprofen acts by reducing any inflammation or irritation that surrounds a wound, thus speeding up the healing process.

If symptoms persist, a one-off steroidal injection using a local anaesthetic can help reduce more severe pain.

Antibiotics: Non-cyclical pain can also be caused by breastfeeding. Nursing mothers often report tender hot spots - or abscesses - when feeding, This is when milk ducts in the breasts become blocked. Doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics - and in more severe cases - will drain the abscess under general anaesthetic.


If you are referred to a breast clinic for either non-cyclical or cyclical pain, you may have a mammogram (a breast x-ray) or ultrasound (an imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves for medical examination).

A specialist may then insert a needle and draw fluid or cells from the lump to assess whether it is a cyst or abscess. If the lump remains solid, breast tissue will be sent for examination. If you are over 30, the lump may be removed and examined. This is a small operation and there is little scarring to the breast.

When to see a doctor

Most of the time breast pain is nothing to worry about - and is unlikely to lead to cancer. But visit your doctor to reassure yourself if you have any of the following symptoms

• If you notice a lump that feels different in texture to the rest of your breast.

• If the pain is severe and interfering with your way of life.

• Some women have breasts that feel like a bunch of grapes - which is normal for them. However, if you notice new lumps - or a change, seek medical advice.

• If pain in one breast persists through a menstrual cycle.

How to prevent breast pain

• Make a habit of examining your breasts. Stand in front of the mirror and raise your arms above your head. Notice any new difference in size or shape between the breasts, any wrinlking of the skin or alteration of the nipple. Slight changes are easier to see if you stand with the light coming from the side.

Lie down, with your fingers flat, feel over the whole surface of both your breasts and armpits for anything which is different from last time (some women find it easier to do this in the bath using a soapy hand).

• Make sure your bra fits properly. Both cyclical and non-cyclical pain can be caused by badly fitting bras. If necessary, visit a bra specialist where you can be properly measured.

• There is some evidence that suggests reducing caffeine can help eliminate symptoms. One study found that cutting caffeine reduced pain and helped smooth out lumpy breasts.

• Other studies show eating plenty of fruit and vegetables can help ease breast pain. Antioxidants absorbed by our body when we eat certain foods helps us to fight off free radicals - highly-reactive molecules that may lead to premature ageing and disease.

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