Cyclical breast pain 

Introduction 

Non-cyclical breast pain

Breast pain that is not linked to the menstrual cycle is sometimes called non-cyclical. Many cases of non-cyclical pain are idiopathic, meaning that there is no identifiable cause.

However, breast pain is sometimes caused by other conditions, including:

  • mastitis – a condition that can be related to breastfeeding and causes the breast tissue to become painful and swollen 
  • breast lumps – there are many benign (non-cancerous) causes of breast lumps, some of which may be painful
  • breast abscess – a painful collection of pus that forms in the breast

Although it is rare, non-cyclical breast pain can also be caused by other medications and treatments, such as:

Smoking and caffeine are also thought sometimes to cause non-cyclical breast pain.

If you have breast pain that doesn't seem to be associated with your menstrual cycle and you are concerned, see your GP.

Cyclical breast pain, also known as cyclical mastalgia, is pain in the breasts linked to the menstrual cycle.

Commonly, the pain affects the upper, outer area of both breasts and can sometimes be felt in the arms.

The pain can vary from a dull ache to a burning or stabbing sensation. In most cases it starts one to three days before your period begins, and improves at the end of your period.

Breast pain is not a symptom of breast cancer and cyclical breast pain does not increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

Read more about the symptoms of cyclical breast pain

In the UK, cyclical breast pain affects up to two-thirds of women, mostly between the ages of 30 and 50. In one in 10 women the pain can be severe.

Why does cyclical breast pain happen?

Although the exact cause of cyclical breast pain is not known, it is related to the menstrual cycle, affecting women who are still having periods (before the menopause). 

It is thought that the changes in hormone levels before periods begin are linked to cyclical breast pain. The menstrual cycle is controlled by your body releasing hormones, such as oestrogen. Hormones are powerful chemicals that have a wide range of effects on the body.

Cyclical breast pain is not associated with any other breast-related conditions.

How is cyclical breast pain treated?

Almost a third of women who get cyclical breast pain find that their condition gets better without treatment in around three menstrual cycles. However, for many, cyclical breast pain will return in the future.

Many women find they can live with their breast pain once they feel reassured that it is not caused by breast cancer.

The pain can usually be dealt with by over-the-counter painkillers and gels, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Speak to your pharmacist for advice. 

If you have breast pain that is affecting your quality of life and painkillers have not helped, your GP may request that you make a record of your daily pain for a period of time and refer you to a breast specialist for further treatment.

Read more about diagnosing cyclical breast pain and treating cyclical breast pain.

Page last reviewed: 13/09/2012

Next review due: 13/09/2014

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