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Dr. Karen Goodhope, St. Luke's Hospital

Breast pain can be worrisome for women

It can be frightening for a woman to experience breast pain. Surprisingly, it is actually quite common. In fact, breast pain affects an estimated 50 to 75 percent of women at some time in their lives. Fortunately, breast pain is rarely a sign of breast cancer. However, a woman should always discuss any breast pain with her healthcare provider to evaluate possible causes and rule out more serious health concerns.

Breast pain can be localized to one area of the breast, or it can affect the entire breast, both breasts or the chest wall. The pain may be felt as a sharp or dull pain, or it may radiate to the nipple. Pain can appear suddenly and it may last for minutes or for months.

Although breast pain is more common in pre- and perimenopausal women, it can occur at any age. If the pain appears regularly with a cyclical pattern, it may simply be related to a woman's menstrual cycle. Some medications can cause breast pain, including oral birth control pills and certain antidepressants. Breast pain also can be caused by mental stress, caffeine consumption or other dietary factors.

Sometimes cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone becomes inflamed and causes pain in the chest wall, a condition called costochondritis. It has no apparent cause, is relatively harmless and goes away on its own, but it can often be perceived as breast pain. Breast cysts or areas of tender breast tissue (both harmless) also can cause pain.

While breast pain is very rarely caused by breast cancer and it is not linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, it is important to address breast health issues. If a woman has persistent, unexplained breast pain, she should contact her healthcare provider for evaluation, which may include mammography or breast ultrasound, to help identify the source of pain and rule out other health issues. Additionally, any breast lump, whether painful or not, should always be evaluated.

Dr. Karen Goodhope is a breast radiologist on staff at St. Luke's Hospital. For more information, visit our Breast Health Services page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 17, 2014.