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Third of women marathon runners have breast pain

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
 woman exercising

20th April 2013 - As women runners line up for this weekend's London Marathon, new research has found that almost a third of them are likely to have their day marred by breast pain.

A study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine says pain is more common among larger breasted competitors and that more than four out of 10 women take no measures to relieve the symptoms.

The authors from St Mary's University College London and the University of Portsmouth base their findings on a survey of 1,285 female runners who registered for last year's event in the capital.

The participants were asked to complete a 30-question survey about how much exercise they took, which marathons they had run, whether they wore sports bras or other forms of support and if they experienced breast pain - also known as mastalgia.

Bra size linked to pain

Overall, 412 of the runners questioned (32%) said they experienced breast pain, but the proportion rose along with increasing cup size. For instance, half of those with a cup size of F or larger complained of pain compared with one in four of those with an A size cup.

Childless women were also significantly more likely to say they had breast pain than women who had given birth.

Even though over half of the women who experienced breast pain described the severity as "discomforting", 44% had done nothing to relieve the symptoms, the researchers found.

Nicola Brown, a lecturer at St Mary's University College, Twickenham and one of the report's authors, tells BootsWebMD that until now there has been little research into the role of exercise in causing breast pain. "A lot of women will experience cyclical breast pain along with their menstrual cycle and for other women it may be non-cyclical," she says.

She adds that the findings underpin the importance for women of adopting the best treatment and support to relieve their symptoms. "We're suggesting that from the results we've found in this study that whilst sports bra use is high, and the majority of women did well in sports bras, that they don't necessarily perceive that as a method to overcome breast pain."

Some of the women runners said they resorted to other methods to help overcome the pain, including taking pain killers, holding their breasts or wearing no bra at all. Others changed their diet, used hot and cold compresses and applied evening primrose oil.

Sports bra design

Among those who sought relief for their breast pain, wearing a sports bra did come out on top - adopted by one in five respondents. However, the authors suggest that there is definitely room for improvement in design.

Joanna Scurr, a reader in sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth, and another of the report's authors, says sports bras have improved over the last eight years. "The sports bra market in the UK is actually way ahead of the sports bra market in other countries," she tells us, "and we are seeing developments; but there's still women out there who are not finding the right type of support for them, so there's still lots of opportunities in that market."

The organisers of the London Marathon acknowledge that because running causes the breasts to move up and down and from side to side, injuries can occur over time. This not only causes breast pain but may also stretch the ligaments, resulting in drooping breasts.

They recommend wearing a sports bra and keeping keeping good posture while running, with the shoulders back. A regular sports massage is also recommended.

Reviewed on April 20, 2013

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