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Illustration by Marta Pucci

Reading time: 6 min

Breast pain and the menstrual cycle

What it is and what to do about it

Top things to know

  • Breast pain is a common premenstrual symptom, typically occurring in the 5–10 days before the start of your period

  • Cyclical breast pain is a normal part of the menstrual cycle and usually not a cause for concern

  • For relief, try supportive bras, warm or cold compresses, massage, medications, herbs and supplements, diet changes, and/or meditation

How breast pain is related to the menstrual cycle

Cyclical breast pain (also called mastalgia) is a common premenstrual symptom that occurs in a predictable pattern related to the menstrual cycle.

It usually happens during the luteal phase (after ovulation and before the period) and resolves once the period starts. People taking hormones for birth control, fertility treatments, management of abnormal bleeding, or menopausal hormone therapy may also experience breast pain related to the changes in hormone levels in these treatments.

Tracking breast pain in Clue can help you determine if it is cyclical and related to your menstrual cycle.

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How to know if your breast pain is cyclical

Cyclical breast pain is typically experienced at a certain time each menstrual cycle, and with certain symptoms:

  • Breast pain experienced 5–10 days leading up to the start of a period, that goes away after the period starts (1)

  • Breasts that feel aching, heavy, and tender, but the pain can also feel sharp or shooting (1)

  • Breasts that feel swollen or lumpy in the days before your period starts (2)

Breast pain can sometimes be severe enough to impact physical activity and sex (2). Some people also report breast pain interfering with school, work, and sleep, though this is less common (2).

Science-backed remedies for breast pain

Even though cycle-related breast pain is common and affects many people, there isn’t much research on how to relieve it. But here are some simple things you can try:

Bras. Wear a well-fitted and supportive bra (3,4). Most people are wearing the wrong bra size. If you’re able to get properly fitted for a bra, this could help decrease breast pain, especially for people with larger breasts. There are also online communities that can help with bra sizing at home. Consider sleeping in a soft bra if breast pain is affecting your sleep (3).

TLC. Use warm compresses or ice packs (whichever feels better) and gentle massage (3).

Medications. For most people, taking over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) is safe and it’s a reasonable step to try to relieve breast pain, but there is a lack of evidence to determine whether this would work any better than a placebo (5).

Supplements and herbs. Vitex agnus-castus (also known as chaste tree) is an herb that has been found to improve a variety of premenstrual symptoms, including breast swelling and pain (6-8). Some people may benefit from taking evening primrose oil (or its active component gamma-linolenic acid), Vitamin E, or the two together, but the research has provided inconsistent results (3,5,9). Powdered flaxseed may decrease the intensity and duration of cyclical breast pain (6,10). One study showed that Matricaria chamomilla (chamomile) may help relieve premenstrual breast pain, but more research is needed (11).

Dietary changes. Research suggests that diets higher in fat may play a role in cyclical breast pain (12). Two studies have shown that decreasing the intake of fat in the diet may improve cyclical breast pain (13,14).

Meditation and relaxation. People with breast pain who practice progressive muscle relaxation daily may have a decrease in pain (15). The use of mindfulness meditation can help improve premenstrual symptoms overall (16).

If these remedies don’t help

See your healthcare provider if the breast pain is severe and does not improve with these steps. They will be able to discuss other options, such as starting or changing prescription medications (9,17).

Things that don’t appear to help

Some interventions have proved to be ineffective or inconclusive. Vitamins B1 and B6 have been studied, but don’t appear to be effective in reducing breast pain (3). Decreasing caffeine has been studied, but the evidence is inconclusive (3). The use of diuretics has also not been shown to work (3).

What’s the biological reason for cyclical breast pain?

The cause of cyclical breast pain is likely hormonal due to its pattern in relation to the menstrual cycle, but the exact hormone (or hormones) involved is not known (3). Some theories include excess estrogen or prolactin, or deficient progesterone during the luteal phase, but studies have had conflicting results (3). Still, cyclical breast pain is a common experience after ovulation (18).

Other theories about the cause of cyclical breast pain include fluid retention and lipid (fat) metabolism (3). Swollen milk ducts have also been found in people experiencing both cyclical and non-cyclical breast pain (19).

A note from the science team at Clue

When you track in Clue, you’re helping scientists to understand more about breast pain.

Laura Symul, a scientist at Stanford, is currently studying how breast pain is reported by Clue users from different demographic backgrounds, to see if the data reveal patterns that have not been described in scientific research yet.

Read more about how tracking in Clue advances science here.

Breast pain is common and normal

While this likely won’t fix the discomfort you may be feeling, it sometimes is reassuring to know that many other people are dealing with the same thing, and that it is part of your body’s normal pattern of changes over the cycle.

Cyclical breast changes that include pain, tenderness, and swelling affect about 7 out of 10 premenopausal people (2,20). Many people worry that breast pain means they have breast cancer, but breast pain alone—particularly when it is cyclical—is not a common symptom of cancer.

If breast pain is worrying you, going to see a healthcare provider for an exam and more information may help relieve the anxiety and maybe even some of the breast pain (21).  

What else should I know about breast pain?

Pain that is not cyclical (meaning that it’s not related to the menstrual cycle or doesn’t go away) could be due to something in the breast or rib cage like inflammation, infection, or injury, or could be a sign of cancer (17). Non-cyclical breast pain that is persistently in one spot—especially if there is also a breast lump—should be evaluated by a healthcare provider (17).

Breast pain can also be a sign of early pregnancy. If it’s possible that you’re pregnant, your breasts may be tender and your period could be late. Taking a pregnancy test could be a good idea.

Download Clue to track breast pain and your cycle so that you can better plan for and manage your symptoms.

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