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Breast pain: Types and causes

There are two different types of breast pain - cyclical and non-cyclical. As the name suggests cyclical breast pain is linked to a woman's menstrual cycle and non-cyclical isn't.

Breast pain can cause a lot of anxiety and many women worry they have breast cancer. It's therefore worth noting that breast pain alone is not usually a sign of breast cancer. In most cases breast pain will be the result of normal changes that occur in the breasts.

Cyclical breast pain

Causes: Cyclical breast pain - also known as cyclical mastalgia - is the most common type of breast pain and affects up to two-thirds of women in the UK, mostly between the ages of 30 and 50. The exact cause is not known but it's thought to be linked to changes in hormone levels before the start of your period.

Pain can also be associated with starting to take a contraceptive pill, certain anti-depressant drugs and some herbal remedies (for example, ginseng), or stress.

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

Symptoms: In most cases, the symptoms of cyclical breast pain are relatively mild, although some women experience more severe pain. The pain can affect either one or both breasts and is described as a heaviness, soreness, a burning, prickling or stabbing pain that radiates to the armpit and arm.

Your breasts may also be tender, with some swelling and general lumpiness - but not a single, hard lump.

The pain occurs at about the same point of your menstrual cycle every month, usually one to three days before the start of your period and improves at the end of your period. The intensity of the pain will not always be the same.

Treatment: Most cyclical pain goes away without treatment and usually disappears at menopause. In the meantime it can usually be dealt with by over-the-counter painkillers and gels, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

You may also be able to relieve breast pain by wearing a better-fitting bra during the day, a soft support bra while you are sleeping and wearing a good sports bra when exercising.

Taking magnesium supplements in the second half of your menstrual cycle (usually the two weeks before the next period) may relieve cyclic breast pain, as may reducing saturated fat to 15% or less of your dietary intake. A small study has shown that making this long-term dietary change significantly reduces breast pain.

Some women feel they have a decrease in breast pain when they decrease the amount of caffeine they drink. Others use alternative therapies such as acupuncture or reflexology. Although there is no scientific evidence to suggest that capsules of evening primrose oil can treat cyclical breast pain, many women find it beneficial.

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