When to Worry About Breast Pain

When to Worry About Breast Pain | UPMC Italy

When people experience breast pain, they often worry that it may be a sign of something serious, such as cancer. However, it is essential to know that breast pain is often caused by non-cancerous conditions and that breast cancer is rarely the main cause.

Here is what you need to know about breast pain and when you should talk to your doctor about it.

What Are the Causes of Breast Pain?

Mastalgia or mastodynia are two medical terms for breast pain. Although breast pain can be felt by both women and men, it is more common in women.  Importantly, breast pain most often is not a symptom of cancer. In fact, 70% of women have experienced breast pain at least once in their lifetime; only in 15% of cases is the pain a sign of a serious condition that requires treatment (source: ANDOS).

Here are some of the common causes of breast pain in women.


After giving birth, the breasts prepare for lactation. It will begin to feel warmer, larger, firmer, and more uncomfortable. The medical term for this swelling is engorgement.

If engorgement is severe, it can be very painful. Breastfeeding the baby frequently helps to reduce engorgement and relieve this discomfort.

Other factors that can cause breast pain during breastfeeding are:

  • A blocked milk duct.
  • A breast infection called mastitis. In addition to pain and swelling, the breast may become red and itchy. Chills, aches or fever may also appear.

Fibrocystic Changes

Many women experience fibrocystic changes in the breasts that can cause swelling and pain, especially before and after menstruation. The pain is often worse before menstruation and improves when menstruation begins. Fibrocystic lumps often change size during menstruation. These changes are usually benign, do not increase the risk of breast cancer, and may include:

  • Thickening of the breast, called fibrosis.
  • Fluid-filled cysts in one or both breasts. This can cause the breasts to look swollen or lumpy.

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal fluctuations during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause can cause breast pain.


Some medications may cause swelling and breast pain as a side effect.


Shingles, is a rash caused by the varicella virus, which can result in a painful eruption of blisters on the breast and chest.

When is Breast Pain a Symptom of Breast Cancer?

It is important to recognize signs of concern that may require medical evaluation. Pay attention to the following symptoms:

  • A new lump in the breast that does not disappear after the menstrual cycle. Most breast lumps are benign and non-cancerous. Cancer is more likely if the lump or breast mass has irregular borders. Often these lumps are painless or hard. But some breast cancers can form soft, round, tender or even painful lumps or breast changes.
  • Reddened, thickened, or orange peel-looking breast or nipple skin.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk.
  • Nipple indented or turned inward.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbones.
  • Persistent pain that does not improve after two weeks or worsens despite the use of over-the-counter pain medications.
  • Fever and chills associated with breast pain.
  • A breast lump with irregular borders. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer that often does not start with a cancerous lump.

When Do I See a Doctor About Breast Pain?

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor for a complete evaluation and to rule out the possibility of breast cancer or other serious conditions.

Most cases of breast pain are benign, but early investigation and diagnosis is critical to your health and peace of mind. Your doctor will be able to advise you on the appropriateness of further testing, such as mammography, breast ultrasound, or biopsy, if necessary, to confirm the cause of your breast pain.