Most of us don’t give our breasts much thought day to day. But we should. Here’s what the look and feel of your breasts can tell you about your health.
Lumps and bumps
Throughout your menstrual cycle, your breasts may feel lumpy and bumpy, as hormonal changes cause benign cysts to fill with fluid. “In menstruating women, these fibrocystic changes are part of the normal architecture of the breast,” says gynecologist Lauren Streicher, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school. The lumps—which tend to show up on the sides of the breasts under the armpits and/or up front and over the nipples—may feel tender or even painful, especially pre-period, but it’s not usually a cause for concern, especially if the lumps are symmetrical. As always, check with your doctor if you are worried.
Pain and aches
There’s a long list of things that can cause breast pain, and most are benign. “Bilateral breast pain—pain in both breasts—is very often hormonal or due to too much caffeine,” Streicher says, since caffeine exacerbates fibrocystic changes. Other possible triggers include PMS changes, an ill-fitting bra, mild trauma to the chest wall (like from bumping into something or just from doing high-impact exercise), and even carrying a heavy purse on the same shoulder day after day. “Muscle wall tenderness can hang on for weeks,” Streicher says. “Most people don’t connect the dots.”
Breast pain can also come from a deficiency in iron, which regulates thyroid hormones. In a 2004 study, half of women reduced their overall breast pain after adding six mg of iodine supplements, which also boosts thyroid function, to their diets. While pain in only one breast could warn of breast cancer—”people think breast cancer doesn’t cause pain but that’s not true; it can hurt,” Streicher says—there are a lot of non-cancerous things that can cause breast pain, and they’re much more common.
Nipple discharge is not abnormal—it can happen after sexual stimulation—but it could signal a problem. “Most women immediately think it means breast cancer, and in some cases it does, but there’s a long list of other things it could be,” Streicher says. Especially when the discharge is happening on both sides, it’s likely to be a hormonal issue. A common problem is elevated levels of prolactin, which could come from a medication you’re taking (such as the pill or certain SSRI antidepressants), having an underactive thyroid, duct ectasia (a menopause-related shortening of the milk ducts), or worst case, a pituitary tumor.
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