Breast pain is one of the most common breast-related patient complaints and is found to affect at least 50% of the female population.1 Most cases are self-limiting and are related to hormonal and normal fibrocystic changes. The median age of onset of symptoms is 36 years, with most women experiencing pain for 5 to 12 years.2 Because the cause of breast pain is not always clear, its presence can produce anxiety in patients and physicians over the possibility of underlying malignancy. Although breast cancer is not associated with breast pain, many patients presenting with pain are referred for diagnostic imaging (usually with negative results). The majority of women with mastalgia and normal clinical examination findings can be reassured with education about the many benign causes of breast pain.
What are causes of breast pain without an imaging abnormality?
Hormones. Mastalgia can be focal or generalized and is mostly due to hormonal changes. Elevated estrogen can stimulate the growth of breast tissue, which is known as epithelial hyperplasia.3 Fluctuations in hormone levels can occur in perimenopausal women in their forties and can result in new symptoms of breast pain.4 Sometimes starting a new contraceptive medication or hormone replacement therapy can exacerbate the pain. Switching brands or medications may help. Another cause of mastalgia may be elevated prolactin levels, with hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction.5,6
Diet. There is evidence to link a high-fat diet with breast pain. The pain has been shown to improve when lipid intake is reduced and high- and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels are normalized. As estrogen is a steroid hormone that can be synthesized from lipids and fatty acids, elevated lipid metabolism can increase estrogen levels and exacerbate breast pain symptoms.7,8 Essential fatty acids, such as evening primrose oil and vitamin E, have been used to treat mastalgia because they reduce inflammation in fatty breast tissue through the prostaglandin pathway.9,10
Caffeine. Methylxanthines can be found in coffee, tea, and chocolate and can aggravate mastalgia by enhancing the cyclin adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) pathway. This pathway stimulates cellular proliferation and fibrocystic changes which in turn can exacerbate breast pain.11
Smoking. In my clinical practice I have clearly noted a higher incidence of breast pain in patients who smoke. The pain tends to improve significantly when the patient quits or even cuts back on smoking. The exact reasons for smoking’s effects on breast pain are not well known; however, they are thought to be related to acceleration of the cAMP pathway.
Large breast size. Very large breasts will strain and weaken the suspensory ligaments, leading to pain and discomfort. It has been shown that wearing a supportive sports bra during episodes of breast pain is effective.
Types of breast pain
Women with fibrocystic breasts tend to experience more breast pain. Breast sensitivity can be localized to the upper outer quadrants or to the nipple and sub-areolar area. It also can be generalized. The pain tends to peak with ovulation, improve with menses, and to recur every few weeks. Patients who have had partial hysterectomy (with ovaries in situ) or endometrial ablation will be unable to correlate their symptoms to menstruation. Therefore, women are encouraged to keep a diary or calendar of their symptoms to detect any correlation with their ovarian cycle. Such correlation is reassuring.
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