Breast tenderness and lumpiness occur commonly among women everywhere, either cyclically or episodically, for periods of varying duration, before, during, or after the childbearing years. Breast pain (also known as mastalgia or mastodynia) is the number one reason why women visit clinics specializing in breast care and is present in 45 percent of the women who visit these clinics. But it’s so common that almost all general physicians see women with this problem.
The burning question that most women with breast pain want answered right away is this: “Is my pain a sign of cancer?” The answer to this is almost always no. But there are a few cases in which the answer is yes. One study showed that breast pain alone is a symptom in only seven percent of women who had early-stage breast cancer, and another eight percent presented with both pain and a lump. Another retrospective study suggested an increased risk for breast cancer in women who have had a history of chronic cyclic breast pain compared to those who did not. Preece1 Since we don’t know what causes breast cancer and can identify only 20 to 30 percent of the known risk factors for this disease, it is clear that more and different kinds of studies are needed to fully address this issue. If you have significant breast pain, you should see a physician, receive a thorough breast exam, and have a mammogram or sonogram if indicated.
What Causes This
The most common type of breast pain occurs premenstrually and is related to the hormonal changes in your body that are part of your menstrual cycle. In the luteal phase of your cycle (the two weeks before your period begins), all women have an increased tendency to retain fluid and to gain a pound or two. But in susceptible women, this slight fluid increase, as well as other hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle, can cause pressure or inflammation in the breast tissue, resulting in breast tenderness. The same inflammatory chemicals such as prostaglandins and cytokines that cause menstrual cramps can also cause breast tenderness!
Your breast tissue actually goes through cyclic changes each month that mirror those that are happening in your uterus. The difference is that the buildup of fluids and tissue in your uterus passes out of your body in the form of your menstrual flow. But the buildup of fluid and cellular tissue in your breasts simply gets reabsorbed back into your body. So it’s not difficult to see how pain might result in many women. These cyclic hormonal changes also explain why women are so often offered a variety of hormonal therapies for their breast complaints.
Some women experience breast pain that is not related to the menstrual cycle at all. No one knows what causes this. Some sources think it is related to inflammation in the body, whereas others think it is related to neuroendocrine changes resulting from subtle interactions between our environment, our perceptions, and our hormonal and immune systems. (Breast pain has been linked to alterations in steroid and protein hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, LHRF [luteinizing hormone releasing factor, made by the hypothalamus], and prolactin).
Spiritual and Holistic Options
If breast pain is a problem for you, choose from the options in this section on the basis of what appeals to you, and what you can easily do for yourself without incurring undue stress. It’s not necessary to do everything listed below all at once, unless it feels right to you.
First, consult your health care practitioner.
Find a health care practitioner with whom you do not feel hurried and provide them with a full history of your breast concerns. This is to make certain that you have no signs of breast cancer. It’s ideal when your physician can also offer you the emotional support you need for dealing with breast pain, a breast lump, or both.
Minimize estrogen dominance and inflammation.
Follow a diet that minimizes excess estrogen and also decreases cellular inflammation. Breast tissue is exquisitely sensitive to high-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, which raise estrogen levels. Excessive estrogen production stimulates breast tissue, resulting in breast pain and cyst formation in many women. Boyd2
Change your diet.
Many women with cyclic breast pain respond well to dietary change alone, for example increasing dietary fiber, eliminating dairy and caffeine, and adding foods or supplements rich in omega-3 fats or that contain soy.
- Get plenty of soluble fiber from vegetable sources, including cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and turnips.
- Regularly include soy foods, such as tofu, miso, and tempeh, in your diet.
- Stop eating all dairy foods for at least one month as a trial run. If it hasn’t helped after one month, then you can add dairy foods again. Over the years I’ve seen this relieve the breast pain of many women.
- Eliminate caffeine. As with dairy foods, a caffeine elimination trial, usually for one full menstrual cycle, is worthwhile.
- Bolster your omega–3 fatty acid intake. Natural dietary sources include: free-range meats, eggs from cage-free hens, dark green leafy vegetables, ocean-raised (“wild”) cold water fish, flax seed (one-quarter cup ground seeds, 3–4 times per week), walnuts, sesame. If you prefer, you can supplement with: flax seed oil (two teaspoons, three to four times a week), cod liver oil (one or more teaspoons per day), EPA and/or DHA. (Usual dose of DHA is 100–400 mg per day, or 400–800 mg per day for pregnant women and nursing mothers.)
- Increase antioxidant vitamins E, A, and selenium.
- Increase your intake of iodine.
Try castor oil packs.
Applied to the breasts three times per week for one hour, over two or three months, castor oil packs often eliminate breast pain, particularly if there is swelling of breast tissue. A maintenance program of once per week thereafter is recommended.
Learn self-massage of the chest and breast.
Every cell in the breasts and other organs is bathed in lymph. Lymph carries nutrients and immune cells throughout the body and filters waste products through the lymph nodes, where they can be detoxified. Stimulating lymph circulation through regular massage of the breast and chest wall area can help maintain healthy breast tissue.
Learn to accept the support and nurturance of others.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- The Wisdom of Menopause, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 13, “Creating Breast Health”
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 10, “Breasts”
Both books contain a description of self chest and breast massage methods, and offer more information on breast pain and other holistic and traditional options for treating it.
- Preece, P. E., et al., 1982. Importance of Mastalgia in Operable Breast Cancer, British Medical Journal, vol. 284, pp. 1299–1300; Hughes, L. E., Webster, D. J., 1989. Breast Pain and Modularity, Benign Disorders and Disease of the Breast (London, Bailliere Tindale.
- Boyd, N., 1988. Effect of a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet on symptoms of cyclical mastopathy, The Lancet, vol. 2, p. 128; Rose, D. et. al., 1987. Effect of a low-fat diet on hormone levels in women with cystic breast disease. I: Serum steroids and gonadotropins, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 78, p. 623; Rose, D., et al., 1987. Effect of a low-fat diet on hormone levels in women with cystic breast disease. II: Serum radioimmunoassayable prolactin and growth hormone and bioactive lactogenic hormones, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 78, p. 627.