The Many Causes of Painful or Tender Breasts

Woman with breast discomfort

(Tina Dawn/ VM-Med) — Painful or tender breasts are not uncommon. Throughout their lives and menstrual cycles, most women will experience some form of discomfort and perhaps even occasional pain. People sometimes assume the worst when they experience unusual symptoms or discomfort in their breasts, and they shouldn’t. The reasons vary and are often quite benign and easily treatable. 

Why do you experience breast tenderness? 

There are many non-serious reasons why your breasts may suddenly hurt. Here are all the far-more-likely reasons your body is behaving differently that you should check for before assuming cancer. 

According to John Hopkins University, here are the main reasons why you may be experiencing painful and heavy breasts. 

  1. Hormonal fluctuations are the number one reason women have cyclical breast pain. Breasts become sore three to five days prior to the beginning of a menstrual period and stop hurting after it starts. Menstruation also causes your breasts to retain water, making them heavy and tender.

Women’s menstruation is also closely connected to fibrocystic breasts, breast changes that fluctuate with the menstrual cycle and have what the Mayo Clinic describes as a lumpy, rope-like texture. These changes are considered completely normal and are no cause for concern. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than half of women experience fibrocystic breast changes at one point in their lives. 

  1. Pregnancy is also a major reason for breast tenderness and pain. Especially in the first three months. As your pregnancy progresses, your breasts will continue to grow and feel heavy and achy. After you’ve given birth, breastfeeding and any associated nipple tenderness may also cause painful, heavy breasts. 
  1. Mastitis is a major reason for breast pain and tenderness. Mastitis is a painful inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes involves an infection, like bacteria entering a milk duct opening, or a blocked milk duct opening. The inflammation results in breast pain, swelling, warmth and redness. You might also experience fever and chills. 

Mastitis most commonly affects women who are breastfeeding (lactation mastitis). But occasionally mastitis can also occur in women who aren’t breastfeeding and even in men. If left untreated it can cause complications, including the need for surgical draining of any abscesses that may develop. 

  1. A breast infection or a benign breast lump may also be causing pain. In some cases, an injury to the breast or the chest area, like a pulled muscle may also be the culprit. Painful but benign breast cysts can alarm women, but they’re not usually a sign of something serious. These fluid-filled lumps usually resolve all on their own and disappear with no additional treatment. 

To be certain they’re benign your doctor can order a mammogram and/or drain the cyst. Painful breasts can sometimes also result as a side-effect from medication, like birth control pills many women take to prevent pregnancy. Women who have breast implants should also pay close attention to painful and tender breasts, as it might be a sign of a possible implant rupture or of scar tissue forming around the implants.

Painful breasts can be a rare sign of breast cancer

In rare occasions, painful breasts are a sign of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer, which is quite rare and aggressive, only accounting for less than 5 per cent of breast cancer diagnoses, usually causes pain and causes the breasts to be swollen and heavy. It usually appears as a rash, may be misdiagnosed as an infection, and doesn’t commonly appear in a mammogram because a lump rarely forms. 

Breast cancer can affect men and women of all ages and backgrounds. If you notice pain and tenderness in the breast along with any changes in the shape or texture of the nipple or breast that might be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. 

See your doctor about any unusual breast pain or lump 

If you are concerned about any physical changes or sudden pain in your breasts, write down all your symptoms and schedule an appointment with your doctor, who will help you determine the cause and plan a course of treatment for you.

VM Med Clinic’s Breast Centre is the largest private breast centre in Canada and an internationally recognized leader in breast cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment. The clinic’s team of health experts takes care of every aspect of our patients’ breast health needs and works with you to create a personalized course of treatment. 

For more information, you can read our extensive archive of VM-Med blogs, including how to perform a breast self-examination

Still have questions? Book a consultation with our experts.