What causes breast tenderness?

Breast tenderness is often a result of the natural menstrual cycle, as estrogen gradually peaks just before mid-cycle, causing the breast ducts to enlarge. In addition, progesterone levels peak near day 21 in a 28-day cycle, causing growth in the milk glands. Both contribute to normal premenstrual swelling and tenderness, which is experienced to some degree by most women. These same hormonal changes can cause tenderness in early pregnancy as well.

In addition, breast tenderness may be caused by breastfeeding, lifestyle factors (such as diet and medications), and physical breast changes, as well as primary disorders.

Pharmaceutical and dietary causes of breast tenderness

Breast tenderness may be caused by medication and dietary factors including:

  • Caffeine intake
  • Dietary changes (specific to the individual woman)
  • Medications
  • Some recreational drugs
  • Use of estrogen products such as birth control pills

Physical causes of breast tenderness

Breast tenderness can also be caused by certain physical changes in the body including:

  • Breast ptosis (drooping)
  • Breastfeeding
  • Early pregnancy
  • Premenstrual or other hormonal changes

Primary disease causes of breast tenderness

Breast tenderness can also be caused by some primary disorders including:

  • Benign tumor
  • Breast abscess
  • Breast cancer
  • Fibrocystic breast disease (benign breast changes)
  • Mastitis (breast inflammation)
  • Paget’s disease of the breast

Serious or life-threatening causes of breast tenderness

In some cases, breast tenderness may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Ectopic pregnancy (life-threatening pregnancy growing outside the uterus) is an example of a potentially life-threatening condition that may produce breast tenderness.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of breast tenderness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your breast tenderness including:

  • How long have you felt tenderness in your breast? When did you first notice it?
  • Have you experienced a recent injury to your breast?
  • Where does your tenderness most often occur? In what part of the breast?
  • Does the pain occur cyclically? Does it come and go at predictable intervals, or is it constant?
  • Is it unilateral or bilateral (occurring in just one breast or in both)?
  • Do you have any other symptoms? Any redness? Heat at the site? Swelling? Hardening?
  • Do you have any new or unusual lumps in your breast?
  • Do you experience fever or chills?
  • Do you have any nipple discharge?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of breast tenderness?

Complications from breast pain are not usually life threatening, although underlying causes can sometimes be serious. You can avoid complications related to any inflammation by treating the inflammation promptly. If you are breastfeeding, practice good hand and breast hygiene, and continue nursing unless your doctor or licensed health care practitioner orders otherwise. Often, breast tenderness is greatly relieved by more frequent breastfeeding to relieve the milk ducts.

Because breast tenderness can be due, in some cases, to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including spreading of a malignancy (if present) or complications of untreated mastitis including:

  • Breast Abscess
  • Disfigurement or scarring
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)


  1. Breast – premenstrual tenderness and swelling. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003153.htm.
  2. Breast infection. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002460/.

What is breast tenderness?

Tenderness in the breast can occur as a result of both normal changes and disease processes. Breast tenderness may worsen with pressure (sometimes with very little pressure) or may not be affected by pressure at all, depending on the cause. It may also be associated with breast swelling.

... Read more about breast tendernessintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with breast tenderness?

Breast tenderness may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the breast may also involve other body systems.

Breast symptoms that may occur along with breast tenderness

Breast tenderness may accompany other symptoms affecting the breast including:

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Jul 31, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.