An introduction to periods and sore breasts
Sore breasts (mastalgia) are a common symptom of menstrual periods. Women often describe their breasts as feeling swollen, tender, heavy or lumpy. The pain can be sharp or instead be felt as a dull ache. The pain can also radiate towards the armpits in some cases. These symptoms are often perfectly normal and are no real cause for concern as I go on to explain.
Hormones are normally to blame for the changes in your breasts; your breast tissue is extremely hormone-sensitive. Women commonly report breast pain in the early stages of pregnancy and before menstruation as your hormones tend to be running wild around these times. However, the extent to which specific hormones are to blame isn’t exactly clear.
During the second half of your menstrual cycle you experience bigger fluctuations in your sex hormones and as a result of this many women suffer from sore breasts during this time, in particular, in the week or days before your period. Often the pain eases off once your period has started.
Bloating and water retention (other common symptoms of menstrual periods) can add to the problem and can leave you with heavy, swollen breasts.
Are there any warning signs to look out for?
At certain times of the month your breasts can feel lumpier and this is perfectly normal for many women. However, lumpy breasts could be a sign of fibrocystic disease. This is a benign condition characterised by the formation of small cysts on the breast tissue. This can give rise to painful breasts, especially around the time of your period.
As women get older, breast cancer is also a big concern. I advise you get used to the shape and feel of your breasts and get to know what is normal for you.
Cyclical mastalgia is breast pain which is linked to the menstrual cycle, and you may find lumps are more noticeable in the lead up to your period each month. Keeping a period symptom diary can be useful to help you to determine if similar changes occur at around the same time each month.
However, if you have pain or notice lumps which don’t seem to be cyclical you may wish to pay a trip to your doctor. Most forms of breast cancer don’t cause pain but if you do happen to experience non-cyclic sensitivity or lumps (either in the breast tissue or under your armpit), any discharge from the nipple, dimpling of the skin, a change in size or shape of your breasts, or a change in colour, you should consider visiting your GP who can perform a physical examination.
How can your period cause sore breasts?
Hormones are thought to be the main cause of sore breasts as a symptom menstrual period. From the middle of your menstrual cycle onwards, women typically experience fluctuations in both oestrogen and progesterone. These fluctuations can vary from woman to woman and some are more pronounced than others. It is thought that oestrogen dominance can give rise to sore breasts as oestrogen causes the breast ducts to swell. However, progesterone may also have an impact as it can affect the milk glands within the breast which can also become swollen and sensitive.
Beware of hormonal contraceptives potentially making breast pain worse. These contain synthetic forms of oestrogen and progesterone (in different ratios and amouts depending on the type) and these could potentially be adding to your discomfort.
Although oestrogen and progesterone are thought to be the main instigators of breast pain, other hormones may also have a part to play, such as prolactin or cortisol. Stress can have a big impact on other hormones around the body.
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Dietary and lifestyle factors
There are some dietary and lifestyle factors which can help if you suffer from sore breasts, these are as follows:
- Limit stress – Stress can put pressure on your adrenal glands. This can have a domino effect on the rest of your endocrine system and your sex hormones can be thrown off. Your breasts are thought to be especially sensitive to oestrogen which can easily fluctuate in times of stress. Look out for heavy, painful periods and mood swings alongside your sore breasts which could suggest your oestrogen is elevated
- Dietary considerations – It is important to consider how much salt and caffeine you have in your diet. Salt can contribute to water retention and caffeine can affect your adrenal glands in a similar way that stress can. Eat fresh, wholefoods rich in vitamins and minerals and avoid salt, caffeine and sugar as much as possible
- Get a bra that fits – You might assume that your bra fits perfectly but it would surprise you how many women are wearing ill-fitting bras! Many places offer a free fitting service and a bra that fits properly can make a big difference to how comfortable you are. This is especially important if you are exercising around the time of your period as your breasts can suddenly become much more sensitive to movement.
Herbal remedies to help
There are some herbal remedies which could help if you suffer from cyclic mastalgia on a monthly basis.
Agnus castus is a licensed herbal remedy which can help to gently correct hormone imbalance and relieve symptoms of PMS including sore breast, menstrual cramps and mood swings.
Please note, if you are taking hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, hormone-balancing herbal remedies may not be suitable for you.
If you think stress is a factor which is potentially upsetting your menstrual cycle and the associated symptoms, often it is a useful first step to address this issue first – it can really make a difference. AvenaCalm is a licensed herbal remedy which can help address mild stress and anxiety.
How can my doctor help?
If sore breasts around the time of your period are problematic or you are worried about breast pain, I recommend you pay a visit to your doctor. Your GP can conduct a physical examination and for woman over the age of 50 you should be attending routine mammograms every 3 years.
For cyclic mastalgia, your doctor might suggest over the counter pain killers, anti-inflammatory medication or hormonal contraception, for example the pill. The pill can help to regulate your hormones and stop fluctuations which are affecting your breasts.
Always discuss all options with your GP in order to determine what’s best for you.