Common benign breast concerns for the primary care physician

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More than 50% of women experience breast pain at some point in their life.5 Of these, 35% report that the pain adversely affects their sleep, and 41% note that the pain detrimentally affects their sexual quality of life. Up to 66% of breast pain correlates directly with the patient’s menstrual cycle.5 Breast pain is rarely associated with malignancy.

Regardless of its severity and the low likelihood of malignancy, breast pain can be a significant source of distress for the patient, primarily because of concerns about underlying malignancy. If the patient has a focal area of pain on examination, order mammography in combination with targeted ultrasonography. The sensitivity and negative predictive value of benign findings on combination mammography and ultrasonography in this setting are as high as 100%. The incidence of underlying cancer in patients with focal breast pain and no palpable mass is approximately 1.2%.6

The long-term prognosis in women with diffuse, often bilateral breast pain (in the absence of additional clinical findings) is excellent. In one study, the incidence of a breast cancer diagnosis was 1.8% after a median of 51 months of follow-up.7 Therefore, patients presenting with diffuse pain, no palpable abnormalities, and benign imaging can be safely reassured. Magnetic resonance imaging is rarely indicated in patients with breast pain unless other clinical findings, such as a mass or skin changes, are noted and the results of mammography and ultrasonography are negative.

Treating breast pain

Treating breast pain remains a challenge. The first step is to reassure the patient about her prognosis and help her make appropriate lifestyle modifications.

A well-fitting bra. Suggest getting a professional bra fitting. Wearing a well-fitted bra that offers lift, support, and compression and reduces excess motion can help improve benign breast pain. A bra fitting is especially important for women with large breasts because it can be difficult for these women to get an accurate size. Wearing a lightly fitted bra at night may also provide comfort if there is nighttime pain with breast tissue movement.

Reducing daily caffeine intake is often advised for pain management, but strong evidence of its efficacy is lacking.

Anti-inflammatory drugs can be beneficial if used short-term, especially if costochondritis is suspected.

Danazol improves pain in more than 70% of patients with cyclical symptoms and in up to 48% of those with noncyclical symptoms.

Bromocriptine is effective in up to 54% of those with cyclical symptoms and in up to 33% of those with noncyclical symptoms.8 However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) withdrew approval for this indication because of adverse effects.

Tamoxifen, in contrast, provides relief in 94% of those with cyclical symptoms and in 56% of those with noncyclical symptoms.9

Adverse effects, however, limit the use of danazol, bromocriptine, and tamoxifen, and they should be prescribed only for short-term use (3 to 6 months) and only in women with chronic debilitating pain.

A few small studies have evaluated alternative options.

Toremifene is a triphenylethylene derivative similar to tamoxifen that is also used in the adjuvant treatment of postmenopausal breast cancer (but with fewer adverse effects). It has been documented to have a significant effect on premenstrual breast pain, with a 64% reduction in breast pain scores compared with a 26% reduction with placebo.10 However, the FDA has not approved it for this indication, and it can be cost-prohibitive.

Over-the-counter medications that may provide relief for cyclic breast pain include vitamin E or B6, products containing oil of Vitex agnus castus (chaste tree or chasteberry), and flaxseed.11,12

Acupuncture has been evaluated in patients with noncyclic breast pain and was found to reduce pain by 56% to 67% in one study,13 although it did not affect quality of life.


From 5% to 7% of women seek medical attention for nipple discharge.14,15 Breast cancer is found in 5% to 15% of women who undergo surgery for nipple discharge.16,17

Review the patient’s current medications and inquire about health conditions such as thyroid dysfunction or visual field changes that suggest a pituitary mass (which can lead to nipple discharge by causing hormonal dysregulation or hyperprolactinemia).

Palpate the breasts for an underlying mass, look for lesions on the nipple, and assess the color of the fluid. Also note whether there is discharge from one or both breasts, whether it is spontaneous or expressive, and whether it occurs from a single or multiple ducts. Nipple lesions may require further testing with punch biopsy.

Nonlactational nipple discharge is classified as physiologic or pathologic. Physiologic nipple discharge is typically bilateral, involving multiple ducts, and is often clear or straw-colored but may also be green, gray, or brown.

White, opaque fluid is often related to galactorrhea as a result of hyperprolactinemia, hypothyroidism, or medications such as antipsychotic drugs (eg, haloperidol and fluphenazine) and gastrointestinal motility agents such as metoclopramide. Discharge also commonly results from benign underlying ductal abnormalities such as intraductal papilloma, periductal mastitis, and duct ectasia.

Pathologic nipple discharge is often unilateral and persistent, occurring spontaneously from a solitary duct, and may be bloody or serous.

For women with pathologic nipple discharge who are 30 or older, diagnostic imaging with mammography and subareolar ultrasonography is recommended. If the patient is younger than 30, ultrasonography of the subareolar region alone can be used. Targeted ultrasonography of any palpable area is also advised.

Cytologic assessment of the fluid is not recommended because it can often lead to a false-positive finding of atypical cells. Imaging studies such as ductography, duct lavage, ductoscopy, and magnetic resonance imaging are also generally unnecessary; instead, a persistent clinical concern should prompt a surgical referral for consideration of duct excision.

When a patient has pathologic nipple discharge with a negative physical examination and breast imaging, studies have shown that the risk of cancer is 3% or less.18

Patients with spontaneous bloody or serous single-duct discharge with negative results on mammography and ultrasonography should be reassured that they have a low risk of underlying cancer. If the patient prefers, one approachto management is follow-up mammography and ultrasonography at 6 months and clinical examination for up to 2 years or until the discharge resolves on its own.

On the other hand, if the discharge is distressing to the patient, subareolar duct excision can be performed with both a diagnostic and therapeutic purpose.

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