Applied Evidence

How best to address breast pain in nonbreastfeeding women

Author and Disclosure Information

This guide—with accompanying algorithms—will help you to streamline your approach to breast pain in a patient who isn’t breastfeeding.


› Instruct patients to maintain a pain diary, which, along with a careful history and physical examination, helps to determine the cause of breast pain and the type of evaluation needed. C

› Treat cyclic, bilateral breast pain with chasteberry and flaxseed. B

› Consider short-term treatment with danazol or tamoxifen for women with severe pain. A

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series




Robin S is a 40-year-old woman who has never had children or been pregnant. She is in a relationship with a woman so does not use contraception. She has no family history of cancer. She presents with worsening bilateral breast pain that starts 10 days before the onset of her period. The pain has been present for about 4 years, but it has worsened over the last 6 months such that she is unable to wear a bra during these 10 days, finds lying in bed on her side too painful for sleep, and is unable to exercise. She has tried to eliminate caffeine from her diet and takes ibuprofen, but neither of these interventions has controlled her pain. Her breast exam is normal except for diffuse tenderness over both breasts.


Meg R is a 50-year-old healthy woman. She is a G2P2 who breastfed each of her children for 1 year. She does not smoke. She has no family history of breast cancer or other malignancies. She presents with 2 months of deep, left-sided breast pain. She describes the pain as constant, progressive, dull, and achy. She points to a spot in the upper outer quadrant of her left breast and describes the pain as being close to her ribs. She had a screening mammogram 3 weeks earlier that was normal, with findings of dense breasts. She did not tell the technician that she was having pain. Clinical breast examination of both breasts reveals tenderness to deep palpation of the left breast. She has dense breasts but a focal mass is not palpated.

Mastalgia, or breast pain, is one of the most common breast symptoms seen in primary care and a common reason for referrals to breast surgeons. Up to 70% of women will experience breast pain during their lifetime—most in their premenopausal years.1,2

The most common type of breast pain is cyclic (ie, relating to the menstrual cycle); it accounts for up to 70% of all cases of breast pain in women.1,3 The other 2 types of breast pain are noncyclic and extramammary. The cause of cyclic breast pain is unclear, but it is likely hormonally mediated and multifactorial. In the vast majority of women with breast pain, no distinct etiology is found, and there is a very low incidence of breast cancer.2,4

Up to 70% of women will experience breast pain during their lifetime, most in their premenopausal years.

In this review, we describe how to proceed when a woman who is not breastfeeding presents with cyclic or noncyclic breast pain.

Evaluation: Focus on the pain, medications, and history

Evaluation of breast pain should begin with the patient describing the pain, including its quality, location, radiation, and relationship to the menstrual cycle. It’s important to inquire about recent trauma or aggravating activities and to order a pregnancy test for women of childbearing age.1

Cyclic mastalgia is typically described as diffuse, either unilateral or bilateral, with an aching or heavy quality. The pain is often felt in the upper outer quadrant of the breast with radiation to the axilla. It most commonly occurs during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, improves with the onset of menses, and is thought to be related to the increased water content in breast stroma caused by increasing hormone levels during the luteal phase.5-7

Continue to: Noncyclic mastalgia


Next Article: