If you've found yourself wondering, 'why are my boobs sore?', or 'why have my boobs grown when I'm not pregnant?', you'll probably want some answers, likely jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Most of the time though, there's nothing to worry about, and a perfectly logical explanation behind your boob symptoms (including that our hormones are simply changing all the time!).
So, to give you an idea what exactly it is your breasts might be trying to tell you about your health, and when you could benefit from a trip to the doctor (to rule anything out or get on top of things), here's some expert advice from Dr Alka Patel, GP and Founder of Lifestyle First.
1. You're about to start your period
Your boobs change throughout your menstrual cycle, but in the days before your period, they tend to get really swollen and sore. In some women this continues whilst their TOTM is actually happening – which can be a pain in the butt (or boob, technically speaking), but it's also totally normal and not usually a cause for concern. "Keeping a diary can be a helpful way to see if there’s a cyclical pattern emerging and if there's pain in both your breasts rather than one, there’s less likely to be a worrying cause," notes Dr Patel.
2. You're pregnant
Seeing as your boobs give you a heads up when you're definitely not pregnant, it makes sense that your boobs are sore when you are pregnant as well. In the beginning of your pregnancy, it'll probably be like an extreme version of the feeling you get pre-period, but then they'll also begin to grow, in terms of your actual cup size and the size of your areolas (the fancy word for the bit that surrounds the nipple) too.
But pain and growth aren't the only breast symptoms you can expect in pregnancy, explains the doctor. "You might also notice more prominent blue veins over your breasts, and the bumps on your areolas," says Dr Patel. "Your Montgomery's tubercles (glands on the nipple), that produce oils, are also more prominent," she adds.
3. You might have PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome has many noticeable symptoms, including irregular periods, excess facial or body hair, oily skin and acne, and weight gain – but if you don't already know that you have it, your breasts might be trying to tell you to look into it. Women with PCOS are at increased risk of water retention and breast soreness, so if that sounds like you and other solutions haven't worked, it's worth getting checked out just in case.
4. You need a new bra…
"If you’re getting unexplained neck pain and headaches, think breasts," urges the doctor. "The pain could be due to pressure on your trapezius muscle (runs from your neck to the middle of your back) due to a bra size that's too large and not providing adequate support." Equally, if your underwire is stabbing you or your boobs are spilling over your body could be crying out for a new, smaller bra. Having a proper fitting and choosing a style that's practical and supportive, rather than just pretty, will give your boobs the right provision, preventing aches and pains and even improve your posture and silhouette to boot. Or, if you don't require much support, you can always set them free and go without...
5. ...or you need to wash it
Real talk: we both know you're not going to hand wash your bra, but it really does need washing all the same. Slipping into the same bra for weeks on end means sweat and bacteria collect in the fabric, which can cause fungal infections (nice) and lead to that itchy, irritated skin you might be experiencing.
"Intertrigo is a skin fold infection which occurs in the moist environment under your breasts – make sure you dry off completely after showering – using a hairdryer on a cool setting can help too," notes Dr Patel. "If there's a strong smell to the area, you might have an overlying bacterial infection called Pseudomonas so make sure you see your GP," she adds. Trust us, wash your bra more often and your boobs will thank you (general guidance seems to be every two to three wears).
6. You're losing weight
When you're losing (or gaining) weight, your boobs are often the first area to respond. This is because they're made up of a combination of breast tissue and fat tissue, and the higher or lower your personal ratio of the latter, the faster they'll shrink or grow.
Mostly, this is normal (as are any stretch marks you develop during this process), but watch out for unexplained weight loss with new breast symptoms, warns the doctor, as "this could indicate a more serious underlying cancer. Don’t delay in seeing your GP," she urges.
7. You're eating too much salt
Battling painful breast swelling even when it's not that time of the month? Water retention may be to blame. Oh yes, bloating is not just limited to your tummy, and comfort-eating salty foods makes your breast symptoms even worse. Sad news: it may be time to say goodbye to (overly salted) fries, but the silver lining? Cutting down on processed options and choosing fresh, whole foods instead should see a fairly fast improvement. Hand cut chips anyone?
In fact, "eating fresh, whole foods may help breast pain generally," explains the expert, pointing to a study of 21 patients with severe, persistent cyclical breast soreness and pain for over five years. "The women were split into two groups. One group received general dietary advice, another were taught how to lower the fat content of their food and to increase complex carbohydrate intake. After 6 months there was a reduction in the severity of breast tenderness and swelling in the low fat-high carb group," says Dr Patel, noting that the "study was small, but the differences were significant".
8. You're overdoing it at the gym
'But exercise is GOOD for me!' you say – and you're not wrong – it's just that your boobs don't always agree. Not wearing an adequate sports bra and working out too damn hard (you athletic goddess, you) are two really common causes of breast pain. In fact, 1 in 3 of us feel some degree of pain during exercise, and it gets worse the bigger your bust is.
"Breasts are made up of fat, collagen and glandular tissue held with Coopers ligaments which connect the breast tissue to your surrounding chest muscles," explains the doctor. "It's these ligaments that can get stretched and strained during exercise." To prevent unnecessary pain, be sure to strap your boobs up securely, and don't be afraid to take a break, especially during a really high impact workout – switching from HIIT to yoga one day a week, for instance, can really help.
9. You're drinking too much coffee
Sorry to rain on another of your delicious parades, but a small-scale study by Duke University in California showed that 61% of women who cut out caffeine had reduced pain in their boobs, and previous research agrees that for an estimated 25% of women, it can stop it altogether. But, as we said, this research only involved 147 participants. The science behind it? Caffeine causes the blood vessels in your boobs to dilate, leading to that swollen, heavy feeling, so if you suffer from regular breast pain and can bear to switch to decaf, it might be worth doing.
10. You're deficient in iron
The connection comes from the fact that iron is essential for your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that produces hormones that control the growth and metabolism of your body. In 2004, researchers found that adding iodine supplements to a woman's diet significantly reduced breast pain in half of their participants – although whilst supplements may help your boobs throb a little less, you should still seek advice if you have any concerns about the health of your thyroid, as you may need medication or further investigation into the causes.
11. You need to see a doctor
This might not be the easiest reason on the list, and the younger you are, the less likely it is, but breast cancer is sadly still a very real possibility for every woman. As soon as you find any of the known symptoms – a lump in your breast or armpit, changes in the shape or size of your breasts, dimpling of the skin etc – you must speak to your GP. It could well be nothing, but if it is, early diagnosis and treatment could save your life.
For more information on checking your breasts, visit CoppaFeel!, or for support with breast cancer or questions about the condition, call Breast Cancer Now on 0808 800 6000, (Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, and Saturday, 9am to 1pm).
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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