Breast Pain: Period or Pregnancy? Symptoms and Possible Causes

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Ahh boob pain — a not so welcome experience in many of our lives. As breast tenderness or pain is both a PMS and pregnancy symptom, when you notice that your boobs are a little sore or extra sensitive, it can be a definite head-scratcher. 

So how can you tell if it’s a sign of pregnancy or if it’s a sign that your period is right around the corner? Plus, when does breast pain become something you should see a doctor about?

In this article, we break down the symptoms and possible causes of breast pain to provide some clarity on an often unpleasant experience. 

Breast pain — symptoms and feelings 

Breast pain or tenderness is pretty self explanatory, right? It’s the experience of tenderness, tightness, or even sharp, burning pain in your breasts. 

Known as mastalgia, breast pain or tenderness is a relatively common boob experience — with most women having felt it in some stage of their lives. Generally, this pain is categorised into cyclical and non-cyclical pain. 

With cyclical pain, you may notice heavy, dull, or aching pain throughout your cycle. Some women also notice feeling like their breasts are swollen or lumpy. As this pain is linked to your menstrual cycle, these feelings are typically resolved as your period arrives or by the time it finishes. 

Non-cyclical pain, on the other hand, isn’t related to your menstrual cycle and suggests other medical conditions or environmental factors. Think chafing or a bra digging into all the wrong places! 

Breast pain — potential causes 

So what causes breast pain or tenderness? We’ve already gone over cyclical vs non-cyclical pain, but let’s go a bit deeper into the biology of it all. 

Cyclical pain 

The most common cause of cyclical breast soreness or tenderness is your fluctuating hormones throughout your cycle, when both oestrogen and progesterone rise, causing your breast ducts to enlarge and your milk glands to swell. These changes can make your breasts feel sore, tender, or heavy. 

Oestrogen peaks in the middle of your cycle, whereas progesterone peaks in the week before your period; hence, why some of us experience breast pain around ovulation, whereas others experience it that week before your period. 

If you’re not sure whether your breast pain is linked to your cycle, it can be a good idea to track your symptoms in your calendar to see if you can see a pattern tied to your period.

Early pregnancy 

Breast pain can be a sign of pregnancy that can be felt as quickly as 1–2 weeks after conception. However, since 1–2 weeks after conception is right around when your period would occur, it can be tricky to decipher whether this breast pain is being caused by pregnancy or your PMS. 

The reason your breasts hurt (as an early pregnancy symptom) is most likely due to progesterone. As explained above, progesterone peaks the week before your period is due and then begins to drop with your period. However, if you are pregnant — rather than peaking the week before your period and then dropping, your progesterone levels continue to rise… Hence, the breast pain!

How can you tell if it is pregnancy or your period on the way?

Unfortunately, a pregnancy test really is the only true way to determine whether what you are experiencing is pregnancy or PMS. However, if you don’t usually experience breast tenderness as a PMS symptom, or if you do regularly experience breast tenderness but this month it is bothersome or feels different — that could be a sign of pregnancy when it is still too early to test. 

Non-cyclical pain 

Non-cyclical breast pain is less common, but more likely to occur in women in their 40s or older. Non-cyclical pain is typically felt only on one side and is often reported as a throbbing or stabbing pain. There are a number of reasons why someone may be experiencing non-cyclical breast pain or tenderness, including: 

  • A pulled chest muscle which is causing breast pain
  • Benign breast changes like cysts
  • Milk-duct changes that come with age 
  • Environmental factors like a poorly fitting bra

When should you see a doctor about your breast pain? 

Breast pain or tenderness is an extremely common experience and it isn’t usually a cause for concern. However, any time you notice a big change in your body — whether you are experiencing breast pain for the first time, or whether it has changed suddenly over the past few months — it is best to make an appointment with your doctor. They will be able to advise you on why your breast pain is occurring and whether you should be taking any further tests or steps. 

Furthermore, if your breast pain and tenderness (even if it is just a PMS symptom) is really bothering you, make sure to see your doctor to see if there is anything you can be doing to decrease your pain.

Is breast pain and tenderness a symptom of breast cancer?

Breast pain or tenderness is not a symptom typically associated with breast cancer, but if you are experiencing a new pain in your breast that doesn’t come and go with your period, it is best to see your doctor. Furthermore, all women should keep an eye on their boobs — checking for any lumps or new bumps in your breast tissue from time to time.

How can you manage breast pain?

Here are some quick tips to manage breast pain:

  • Wear a well-fitted bra
  • If needed, take an anti-inflammatory OTC medication like Ibuprofen
  • Chart your symptoms to see if they’re cycle related 
  • Make Vitamin B6 and Vitamin E your best friends as they’re known to help with breast pain
  • Primrose Oil is another supplement that may help reduce pain by changing the fatty acids in your cells
  • If in doubt, pick up the phone and ask your doctor

Nobody likes being in pain — especially not in your boobs when you are mid-meeting! While sometimes it can’t be avoided because, well, life — it’s important to get yourself educated (this article is a starting point) and listen to your body. If it doesn’t feel right, then see your doctor. As they say, prevention is always better than cure.

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