by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
This question has intrigued me now for over 10 years. In fact when I was in Boston, a nutrition colleague and I wrote a large grant to identify causes and treatments. We also wanted to see if there was an association between women who had tender breasts and those that got breast cancer. Unfortunately it was not funded because breast pain did not and still doesn’t have a high priority among funding groups. I kid with my patients that this is because men just don’t “get it”— because, first, they don’t really have breasts so don’t get breast pain, and second, most do not identify with the anxiety that happens to women when they experience breast pain.
In a day in my office, at least a quarter of my new consults are for breast pain or mastalgia — the fancy medical word for pain. The majority of these women, no matter how well-educated or health savvy, are sure that something terrible is wrong. We are taught that pain is a symptom of something wrong — a sprained muscle, a stress headache, an upset stomach. But what is the cause of breast soreness? I hear women tell me that sometimes the pain wakes them up at night, sometimes it is sharp and burning, often it radiates to the nipple.
Several years ago I wrote an article about solving the mystery of breast pain. The points of that article are still true today. While very few complaints of breast pain are actually breast cancer, women should see their health providers to rule this out. A breast exam needs to be done to be sure there is no lump; an ultrasound should be preformed to be sure there is nothing hidden; medications and diet should be addressed. For many women, especially those in their 40’s and perimenopausal, linking their cycles and other symptoms of hormonal imbalance is very useful. It is unusual for post menopausal women to have breast pain (one of the benefits of menopause) and this symptom should be addressed in women over 50. Hormonal replacement pills in to high doses can cause breast swelling and pain.
In addition, when given the opportunity and the space, many women will also recognize some form of stress, usually a relationship at work or home, that may also be contributing.
Other treatments that I recommend include:
- A healthy diet
- A good multivitamin with extra B’s
- A digestive cleanse/ fast or detox to remove excessive estrogens or hormonal disruptors
- Progesterone cream
Some new therapies I’ve been recommending are topical iodine and lymphatic massage. Topical (meaning used on the skin, not taken by mouth) iodine can be bought over the counter in the grocery or drugstore usually for less than a dollar and painted in a quarter size area once a night on the breast until the brown spot persists overnight or for one month. I will admit that I cannot explain exactly how this works, but the iodine seems to adjust the hormones just enough to keep the swelling down or perhaps it is treating some subclincal virus or bacteria. Most of our diets today do not have the same amount of iodine in them that our ancestors did. This use of iodine does not seem to affect thyroid function.
If you can find a therapist trained in lymphatic massage he or she can be very helpful in treating some types of breast pain. You do not have to have lymphedema or arm swelling for them to help lymph flow and treat the pain. You can try some breast massage techniques on yourself first if you want. Breast oils and creams are available in Europe and women use them like face and body lotions to keep the skin moisturized — not necessarily to enhance the size.
While some cause of breast pain may still remain a mystery, no woman should remain in a prolonged anxiety state about it. Find someone who will listen to you and offer some reassuring solutions not just tell you to grin and bear it or make you feel it is all in your head! It isn’t!