Breast Pain

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Synonyms: mastalgia, mastodynia

Pain is one of the most common breast symptoms experienced by women and management requires careful assessment and diagnosis. There is often understandable anxiety associated with the symptom, particularly about breast cancer. This concern is the primary reason most women seek medical evaluation.[1] The risk of cancer in a woman presenting with breast pain as her only symptom is extremely low and suitable reassurance can usually be given.[1]

Breast pain is uncommon in men. Pain and tenderness may occur in men who develop gynaecomastia secondary to medication, hormonal factors, cirrhosis and other conditions.[1] Cyclical breast pain is clearly only confined to women but both non-cyclical breast pain and extramammary pain can occur in men. The assessment of these types of pain is similar for men and women.

Breast pain is typically approached according to its classification as:

  • Cyclical breast pain - breast pain that has a clear relationship to the menstrual cycle and the most common type of breast pain.
  • Non-cyclical breast pain - may be constant or intermittent but is not associated with the menstrual cycle.
  • Extramammary (non-breast) pain - is interpreted as having a cause within the breast but arises from elsewhere (the chest wall or other sources).

The classification is important because the assessment and response to treatment are different for the different types of breast pain.

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  • Only about half of patients with breast pain seek medical advice.[1]
  • 70% of women will experience breast pain in their lifetime.[2]
  • This is a common presentation in general practice, usually in women aged 30-50 years.
  • In patients attending for breast problems in specialist clinics and general practice, breast pain is given as the reason for attendance in about half of patients.[1]

Symptoms

The history should be directed toward identifying and characterising breast-related symptoms. Establish:

  • Quality and severity of pain (ranges from mild discomfort to severe tenderness and pain).
  • Site of pain.
  • Any relationship to activity.
  • Presence of other breast symptoms (lumps, discharge).
  • Relationship to menstrual cycle. Establish whether the pain is cyclical, ie worse in the luteal phase, but may persist throughout, or whether it has no relationship to menstrual cycle.
  • Medication history.
  • Reproductive, medical and family history.

Normal or physiological breast pain

  • Mild premenstrual breast discomfort lasting for 1 to 4 days can be considered 'normal'.
  • In order of decreasing frequency, premenstrual breast symptoms are tenderness, swelling, pain and lumpiness.

Cyclical breast pain

  • Women who experience more severe and prolonged pain are considered to have cyclical mastalgia.
  • Research studies use methods to measure the severity and duration of pain. Cyclical mastalgia is taken to be more severe pain lasting for more than seven days per month.
  • About 10 to 20% of women will meet the criteria for cyclical mastalgia.[1]
  • Pain may be present to a lesser degree during the entire cycle (with premenstrual intensification).
  • The pain is typically in the upper outer breast area. It often radiates to the upper arm and axilla.
  • Most cyclical mastalgia is diffuse and bilateral (may be more severe in one breast).
  • Pain is described as 'dull', 'heavy' or 'aching'.
  • It is important to ask about medical history and any associated problems. Such problems are common and disruptive. Likely findings include:
    • Sleep problems.
    • Work, school and social disruption.
    • Previous investigations (including mammography and breast biopsy) are more likely and often under age 35.[1]

Non-cyclical breast pain

  • It is less common and typically accounts for approximately 31% of women seen in breast pain clinics.[1]
  • It tends to be unilateral and localised within a quadrant of the breast.
  • Non-cyclical breast pain presents later (in the fourth or fifth decade). Many women are postmenopausal at onset of symptoms.
  • Most noncyclical breast pain arises for unknown reasons.
  • It is more likely to have an anatomical rather than hormonal cause (with the exception of breast pain associated with medication).
  • A minority of non-cyclical breast pain is explained by pregnancy, mastitis, trauma, thrombophlebitis, breast cysts, benign tumours or cancer.[1]
  • A wide range of drugs have been associated with breast pain. Between 16% and 32% of women report breast pain with oestrogen and combined hormonal therapies.[1] Other drugs associated with breast pain include antidepressants (including venlafaxine and mirtazapine), cardiovascular drugs (including digoxin and spironolactone) and other drugs including metronidazole and cimetidine.[1]

Extramammary pain
Extramammary pain due to various conditions may present as breast pain. There are many such conditions but most common are costochondritis and other chest wall syndromes.

Signs

  • Clinical breast examination requires careful inspection and palpation of each breast (including nipple and areolar), together with examination of the regional lymph nodes.
  • Palpation may demonstrate an abnormality. Commonly it reveals coarse nodular areas resembling bundles of string in the breast, but check carefully for any discrete lump.
  • It may be appropriate to examine other potential causes of the pain. Examination of the cervical and thoracic spine, chest wall, shoulders, upper extremities, heart, lungs and abdomen may help further diagnostic evaluation.

Chronic pelvic pain, premenstrual syndrome, and fibrocystic breast disease.

Refer if a lump is present. Ultrasonography of the breast and mammography in patients with breast pain is of little diagnostic value in the absence of physical signs, but they are still sometimes performed to reassure the patient and the physician.[6]

Management will depend on the cause but a variety of measures which have been routinely recommended by some in the past should no longer be so recommended.

Measures not routinely recommended include:[7]
  • Diets low in fat and high in carbohydrate, or low in caffeine.
  • Stopping or changing other medication, including combined oral contraceptives.
  • Evening primrose oil.
  • Progestogen-only contraceptives.
  • Antibiotics.
  • Diuretics.
  • Pyridoxine.
  • Tibolone.
  • Vitamin E.

Cyclical breast pain[7]

First-line management

  • Reassurance that the pain is not due to breast cancer and an explanation as to its hormonal nature may be all the management that some women require.
  • A better-fitting bra and simple analgesia is the first line of treatment. Simple non-opioid analgesia can be helpful for mild discomfort.
  • Topical diclofenac may be helpful. There is some consensus that topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are effective and well tolerated, but the evidence is inconclusive.[2][8]
  • Changing from the contraceptive pill to a mechanical method is sometimes helpful if symptoms are severe.
  • Although there is little evidence to support its use, some women find a soft support sleep bra helpful at night.
  • Will resolve spontaneously in 20-30% but has a high recurrence rate (~60%).[2] 
  • Continue treatment for six months before considering second-line treatment.[7]

Second-line management
Consider referring to a specialist for other treatment options if pain is severe or persistent. A diary of pain and symptoms for two months may help in assessment.[7] Further treatment may include:

  • Danazol (an anti-gonadotrophin) is licensed for severe pain and tenderness in benign fibrocystic breast disease which has not responded to other treatment. GPs inexperienced in its use may wish to refer to a consultant before prescribing. Adverse effects (commonly nausea, dizziness, rash, backache) can be minimised by reducing the dose of danazol to 100 mg from the initial starting dose of 300 mg daily, and restricting treatment to two weeks preceding menstruation. Non-hormonal contraception is essential, as danazol has androgenic effects in the fetus.
  • Tamoxifen (an oestrogen-receptor antagonist) is effective and one trial suggested its benefits lasted longer than that of danazol.[9] Others suggest it should be the first second-line agent.[10]  However, it is not licensed for mastalgia in the UK. There is a consensus to limit its use to no more than six months under expert supervision due to high incidence of adverse effects (commonly hot flushes, vaginal discharge, gastrointestinal symptoms). Non-hormonal contraception is required during use because of potential teratogenicity. There is a risk of thromboembolism but there is no long-term evidence to suggest this is a significant adverse effect at a dose of 10 mg given from days 10 to 25, which is the standard dose for mastalgia and lower than the dose used for breast cancer.[11]
  • Goserelin injections (a gonadorelin analogue inhibiting gonadotrophin release) are occasionally used for severe refractory mastalgia. The incidence of side-effects (mainly vaginal dryness, hot flushes, decreased libido, oily skin or hair, decreased breast size, irritability) can be reduced by using tibolone or hormone replacement therapy.[4][11]
  • Bromocriptine is now rarely used because of frequent and intolerable adverse effects (mainly nausea, dizziness, postural hypotension, constipation). In one large trial, the overall withdrawal rate was 29%.[12]
  • Toremifene (a selective oestrogen-receptor modulator).
  • Ormeloxifene, a selective oestrogen receptor modulator, has been reported to be better in reducing pain scores compared with danazol in a single-blind, randomised controlled trial.[13]  However it is not licensed in the UK and further research is warranted.

Non-cyclical breast pain[4][8]

  • Resolves spontaneously in 50% of women.[2]
  • Chest wall pain often responds to NSAIDs. Referred pain should be appropriately treated.
  • Trigger spots sometimes respond to infiltration with local anaesthetic and steroid injection.
  • For true diffuse breast pain a support bra, and oral or topical NSAIDs may be helpful.
  • Acupuncture has been reported as beneficial in a pilot study.[14]

Further reading & references

  • Millet AV, Dirbas FM; Clinical management of breast pain: a review. Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2002 Jul;57(7):451-61.
  • Willett AM, Michell MJ, Lee MJR; Best practice diagnostic guidelines for patients presenting with breast symptoms, Association of Breast Surgery UK (2010)
  1. Smith RL, Pruthi S, Fitzpatrick LA; Evaluation and management of breast pain. Mayo Clin Proc. 2004 Mar;79(3):353-72.
  2. Goyal A; Breast pain. Clin Evid (Online). 2011 Jan 17;2011. pii: 0812.
  3. Norlock FE; Benign breast pain in women: a practical approach to evaluation and treatment. J Am Med Womens Assoc. 2002 Spring;57(2):85-90.
  4. Dixon JM; (2012) ABC of Breast Diseases, 4th Ed., Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  5. Betzold CM; Results of microbial testing exploring the etiology of deep breast pain during lactation: a systematic review and meta-analysis of nonrandomized trials. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2012 Jul-Aug;57(4):353-64. doi: 10.1111/j.1542-2011.2011.00136.x. Epub 2012 Apr 25.
  6. Tumyan L, Hoyt AC, Bassett LW; Negative predictive value of sonography and mammography in patients with focal breast pain. Breast J. 2005 Sep-Oct;11(5):333-7.
  7. Breast pain - cyclical; NICE CKS, September 2012
  8. Colak T, Ipek T, Kanik A, et al; Efficacy of topical nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs in mastalgia treatment. J Am Coll Surg. 2003 Apr;196(4):525-30.
  9. Faiz O, Fentiman IS; Management of breast pain. Int J Clin Pract. 2000 May;54(4):228-32.
  10. Srivastava A, Mansel RE, Arvind N, et al; Evidence-based management of Mastalgia: a meta-analysis of randomised trials. Breast. 2007 Oct;16(5):503-12. Epub 2007 May 16.
  11. Breast Pain; Clinical Evidence, BMJ, 2005
  12. Mansel RE, Dogliotti L; European multicentre trial of bromocriptine in cyclical mastalgia. Lancet. 1990 Jan 27;335(8683):190-3.
  13. Tejwani PL, Srivastava A, Nerkar H, et al; Centchroman regresses mastalgia: a randomized comparison with danazol. Indian J Surg. 2011 Jun;73(3):199-205. doi: 10.1007/s12262-010-0216-z. Epub 2010 Nov 30.
  14. Thicke LA, Hazelton JK, Bauer BA, et al; Acupuncture for treatment of noncyclic breast pain: a pilot study. Am J Chin Med. 2011;39(6):1117-29.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Laurence Knott
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
456 (v3)
Last Checked:
11/02/2013
Next Review:
10/02/2018