Breast Health

The breasts are made up of several types of tissue: glandular tissue (including mammary glands that produce milk and ducts that transport it), connective tissue, and fat. Breast tissue changes throughout a woman's life, with menstrual cycles as well as general aging.

Breast Pain

Breast pain, also known as mastalgia, is fairly common, affecting about 70 percent of women at some point in their lives. Severe mastaglia, which occurs more than five days a month and can be quite debilitating, affects about 10 percent of women.

Breast pain can be cyclic (changing with the menstrual cycle) and noncyclic (constant or intermittent pain that's not tied to your period). Cyclic pain, which is the most common, typically affects both breasts and involves dull pain, swelling, tenderness, and lumpiness in the entire breast. Noncyclic breast pain is more common in postmenopausal women, usually affects just one breast, and is localized.

Although the exact causes of breast pain aren't known, most experts think that cyclic pain is tied to hormonal fluctuations, while noncyclic pain is caused by physical factors such as breast cysts (see below) or trauma. Taking oral contraceptives, menopause treatments, and antidepressants has also been tied to breast pain. Some experts think it might be tied to an imbalance of fatty acids like gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which makes the breast tissue more sensitive to hormonal changes (and pain).

Lumps and Bumps

Lumps in the breast can be caused by many things — some dangerous, most benign. In the majority of cases, a lump is a harmless swelling or thickening of tissue caused by a group of conditions termed fibrocystic breast changes (FCCs), which affect at least half of all women, most often between the ages of twenty and fifty. FCCs include fibrosis, which is the development of fibrous tissue, and cysts, which are small sacs created when an overgrowth of tissue blocks the milk ducts and causes the glands to fill with fluid. Cysts are typically smooth, with defined edges, and feel like small, soft grapes; they can occur singly or in groups. Breast cysts generally disappear after menopause. One exception: Postmenopausal women taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which can trigger the formation of cysts.

Cysts can get to be one or two inches in diameter, and larger cysts can put pressure on surrounding tissues, causing pain. In most cases, cysts will resolve themselves without any treatment, although doctors can drain the fluid from large cysts that have become uncomfortable.

Does a lump in the breast always mean cancer?

Finding a lump is rarely a sign of cancer, but if you notice a mass in your breast that doesn't go away after one menstrual period and/or is accompanied by other symptoms, such as redness or changes in breast shape or skin texture, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Localized pain that doesn't change with your menstrual cycle also warrants an exam.

Drug (and Nondrug) Treatments

Most doctors recommend OTC pain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat breast pain. In severe cases, prescription medicines might be prescribed, such as danazol (Danazol), which is a synthetic steroid. NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal damage and other side effects, and danazol can cause acne and unwanted hair growth.

Herbalists offer a few natural approaches to breast pain and fibrocystic breast changes:

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Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

The seeds of this flowering plant contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is a valuable anti-inflammatory. Evening primrose oil has been shown to reduce both cyclic and noncyclic breast pain.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red clover is a traditional remedy for cyclic mastalgia. Recent research has shown that an extract of the herb significantly reduces breast pain and tenderness in nearly half the women who try it.

Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus)

Vitex seems to have estrogenic activity in the body and has been shown to relieve cyclic breast pain.

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