PatientPlus 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 worry is often the reason women seek medical evaluation. The risk of cancer in a woman presenting with breast pain as an isolated symptom is extremely low and suitable reassurance can usually be given.
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. Cyclical breast pain is 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, management and response to treatment are different for the different types of breast pain. This is particularly the case in true breast pain vs extramammary pain, as the management is very different.
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- Up to 70% of women will experience breast pain in their lifetime.
- 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 the most common symptom. It is the presenting symptom in about half of new patients in breast clinics.
The history should be directed toward identifying and characterising breast-related symptoms. Establish:
- Nature and duration of pain.
- 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 and periodicity. Establish whether the pain is cyclical, or whether it has no relationship to menstrual cycle.
- If there is recent or current breast-feeding.
- Medication history, particularly hormonal medication.
- Reproductive, medical and family history.
Ask about any associated problems. Such problems are common and disruptive. Likely findings include:
- Sleep problems.
- Symptoms affecting sex life.
- Work, school and social disruption.
- Quality of life adversely affected.
Cyclical breast pain
Features which suggest cyclical breast pain include:
- Severity of pain is variable in different menstrual cycles.
- Pain is usually present in the same part of each menstrual cycle (most commonly starting 1-3 days before menses start).
- Pain has usually settled by the time menstruation ends.
- Pain tends to be in the upper outer quadrant(s) and may extend to the axillae.
- Pain is usually diffuse and bilateral (may be more severe in one breast).
- There may be generalised swelling and lumpiness but no specific lump found.
Pain is not related to the menstrual cycle and is more likely to be unilateral or focal. Some causes are listed in the 'Differential diagnosis' section below. Medication history is particularly important in this type of breast pain; establish whether the person has been on medication which may cause mastalgia - for example:
- Hormonal medication, especially hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Also oral contraceptive pills.
- Antidepressants (including sertraline, venlafaxine and mirtazapine).
- Antipsychotics (including haloperidol).
- Cardiovascular drugs (including digoxin and spironolactone).
- Antibiotics (including metronidazole) and antifungals (including ketoconazole).
Extramammary pain due to various conditions may present as breast pain. There are many such conditions (listed below in 'Differential diagnosis' section) but most common are costochondritis and other chest wall syndromes. Features such as location and radiation of pain, history of recent trauma or aggravating activities may lead the clinician to suspect the cause of the pain to be extramammary.
- Clinical breast examination requires careful inspection and palpation of each breast. This should include all four quadrants of each breast from the under surface of each breast right up to the upper end of the breast tail, the nipple and areola, 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. Look for skin changes and nipple distortion or discharge.
- Look for signs of infection (localised redness, swelling, warmth and tenderness).
- If there is tenderness on examination, establish whether this is within the breast or in the underlying chest wall. Try lifting the breast with one hand while palpating the chest wall underneath, or ask the woman to lie on each side in turn, allowing the breast to fall away from the chest wall. It may be very reassuring for the woman if this demonstrates the area of tenderness is not within the breast tissue.
- Large pendulous breasts may be a clue that the pain is musculoskeletal in nature, especially if a well-fitting, supportive bra is not worn.
- 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.
Exclude pregnancy where indicated. Refer urgently if there is a discrete lump, any sinister feature, or a past history of breast cancer.
Breast pain alone with no associated findings is not an indication for imaging. Consider referral, however, if there are risk factors or if pain is persistent, atypical or unexplained.
The most important conditions to exclude are breast cancer, pregnancy and infection. There are, however, numerous potential causes of breast pain, including:
- Medication - as listed above.
- Miscellaneous causes:
Management will depend on the cause but a variety of measures which have been routinely advised by some in the past should no longer be recommended. Measures no longer routinely recommended include:
- 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.
- Vitamin E
Cyclical breast pain
- 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. Studies have shown that reassurance alone is effective management in 70% of women.
- 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.
- Although there is little evidence to support its use, some women find a soft support sleep bra helpful at night.
- Continue first-line measures for six months before considering second-line treatment.
- Pain will resolve spontaneously in 20-30% but has a high recurrence rate (~60%).
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. 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. Adverse effects (commonly nausea, dizziness, rash, backache, weight gain, menorrhagia) may 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) has also been shown to be effective. However, it is not licensed for mastalgia in the UK, and side-effects include hot flushes, vaginal bleeding, vaginal discharge, increased risk of thromboembolism and increased risk of endometrial cancer. Non-hormonal contraception is required during use because of potential teratogenicity. There is a risk of thromboembolism but this may be less when given for this indication, usually at a lower dose than the dose used for breast cancer, and for only the luteal phase of the cycle. Tamoxifen gel applied topically may also be effective, but is not in common use or generally available.
- Goserelin injections (a gonadorelin analogue which inhibits 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 in conjunction with HRT.
- Bromocriptine is now rarely used because of frequent and intolerable adverse effects (mainly nausea, dizziness, postural hypotension, constipation).
- Gestrinone (inhibits pituitary gonadotrophin).
- Toremifene (a selective oestrogen-receptor modulator).
Non-cyclical and extramammary breast pain
- Non-cyclical breast pain responds poorly to treatment but resolves spontaneously in 50% of women.
- 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, soft sleep bra and oral or topical NSAIDs may be helpful.
- For chest wall pain, gentle exercise and stretching of the muscles (for example, by swimming) are often advised but there is no evidence base for this. Lifestyle changes such as increased exercise and activity and reducing long periods of time sitting in front of a computer are also usually advised and there is some early evidence to support this.
- Gabapentin, pregabalin or amitriptyline are used for neuropathic pain such as scar pain or neuralgia. External neuromodulation for postoperative neuropathic pain has also been used.
- Acupuncture has been reported as beneficial in a pilot study.
Further reading & references
- Iddon J, Dixon JM; Mastalgia. BMJ. 2013 Dec 13;347:f3288. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f3288.
- Goyal A; Breast pain. Clin Evid (Online). 2011 Jan 17;2011. pii: 0812.
- Willett AM, Michell MJ, Lee MJR; Best practice diagnostic guidelines for patients presenting with breast symptoms, Association of Breast Surgery UK (2010)
- Scurr J, Hedger W, Morris P, et al; The prevalence, severity, and impact of breast pain in the general population. Breast J. 2014 Sep-Oct;20(5):508-13. doi: 10.1111/tbj.12305. Epub 2014 Jul 7.
- Breast pain - cyclical; NICE CKS, September 2012 (UK access only)
- Salzman B, Fleegle S, Tully AS; Common breast problems. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Aug 15;86(4):343-9.
- 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.
- Brown N, Burnett E, Scurr J; Is Breast Pain Greater in Active Females Compared to the General Population in the UK? Breast J. 2015 Dec 14. doi: 10.1111/tbj.12547.
- 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.
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Mary Harding
Prof Cathy Jackson