Breast Pain—It Might Be Your Bra

Breast pain is the most common symptom that women get. It comes and goes. It comes and stays. It starts and intensifies. It feels like needles being stabbed into your breasts. It's a dull ache. It's chronic. It's cyclical. Sometimes, it's even scary.

Not surprising that whenever we feel a twinge or pain in that region of our body we think the worst—must be cancer, right? Well, in fact, only 10 percent of the time is a diagnosis of breast cancer accompanied with this type of a symptom. Really!

So what are the causes of breast pain?

  • The most common culprit is natural hormonal changes happening in your body. You know—your menstrual period is on the way or has arrived, or perhaps you're pregnant and experiencing huge hormonal changes.

  • Breast cysts, those benign, fluid-filled sacs that don't do you or your breast any harm but can become uncomfortable if they're large. (Some smaller ones can cause discomfort, too).

  • A benign growth, like a fibroadenoma, which contains abnormal cells but not ones that are in any way related to cancer.

What else? Well, brace yourself: There's one more very common cause of breast pain—your doggone bra. Women seem prone to purchase and try to wear bras that are simply too small for them. If you are looking for the Victoria's-Secret look, then you are seeking a bra that is at least 2 cup sizes too small. Put it on and you will hurt; take it off and the pain magically goes away. Hmmm.

Wearing a bra that lacks any support features is also a problem, at least for large-breasted women who are toting around a heavy load in front. Breasts that are pendulous can be pretty weighty, so it's a matter of basic physics: If you allow them to swing about, you're going to be experiencing some pain.

If you have breast pain, then, should you ignore it? No, particularly if it is new. Do a breast self exam and see if you can zero in on exactly where the discomfort is located. Generalized pain usually indicates more of a hormonal change, whereas pain that is coming from just a tiny area may be a cyst. See your doctor for a clinical breast exam and then get some diagnostic imaging done if he or she feels that's appropriate—this might be a mammogram or it might be an ultrasound.

Hormonal pain is usually relieved with over-the-counter meds like ibuprofen. If you are scheduled for diagnostic imaging, however, take Tylenol instead of aspirin or ibuprofen, just in case a cyst needs to be drained or a core biopsy needs to be performed. Tylenol doesn't contain blood-thinning products that could make a biopsy bleed dangerously if a needle were inserted into the breast.

And don't panic if the doctor wants to do a biopsy—remember, fibroadenomas cause pain and, if the doctor sees one, he or she may opt to core it and, for your piece of mind, confirm that that's all it is.

So, take home message?

  • Wear a bra that fits properly. There are certified fitters at most high-end department stores.

  • Pay attention to when the symptoms come and where in the breast they seem to be located.

  • Don't panic. Get it checked out. You've only got two. Take care of them.

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Health Highlights: Jan. 13, 2014