Our breasts change monthly when we are menstruating and even after menopause. Not all changes indicate illnesses.
The human body comes in diverse shapes, sizes, and forms. There is no perfect shape or size when it comes to breasts, too. And much like the rest of our body, our breasts too change through the course of our lives. Not every change is a sign of alarm, but being aware of them helps us keep track of our health and our body. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Breast health begins with a sense of what's normal for your breasts (breast awareness)."
Apart from the changes that happen as we age, there are also monthly changes that occur in line with our menstrual cycle. Understanding what these changes indicate is important. If you notice anything unusual, it is always best to seek your doctor's opinion.
Every month your breasts undergo certain routined changes that align with the hormonal flux caused by the menstrual cycle. You may not experience the same level of comfort throughout the cycle. This is due to the swelling that occurs close to your periods. However, where the soreness is experienced in the breast gives some clues to underlying reasons. Jerilynn Prior, a researcher and professor of endocrinology at the University of British Columbia, told Chatelaine, "when you have premenstrual breast tenderness at the sides of the breast under the armpits it could be because ovulation has occurred during that cycle. If you experience soreness in the front and over the nipples then it could mean increased levels of estrogen. "
Your breasts could be growing bigger or shrinking in size. The former happens mostly due to weight gain, as our breasts are made of mostly fat cells as well as glandular tissues. Other factors that affect your breast size are birth-control pills, breastfeeding, and/or hormonal changes. If they are becoming smaller, then it's likely because you are losing weight or your estrogen levels are decreasing, according to Prevention. For some women, when the decrease in size is coupled with hair loss, acne, and more facial hair, it could be a symptom of because of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Our breast shape is the result of our DNA but it does change over our lifetime. "Breast shape and appearance are largely based on age and history of child-bearing and breast-feeding," breast surgeon Dr. Daniel Maman, a plastic surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction and an assistant clinical professor of surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City told Prevention.
With age and after breast-feeding, the ligaments in the breast stretch and our skin tend to lose the elasticity, causing our breasts to droop. Maman recommends investing in the right bra for support to defy the effects of gravity. Another factor that affects our breast shape is sudden weight loss or weight gain, especially those caused by yo-yo dieting, since weight fluctuations tend to stretch our skin.
Like size, breast density too can differ from one individual to the other. It is important to be familiar with your breasts on a regular basis to identify any changes immediately. "Be diligent with self-exams—know what your breasts feel like," Maman said. "Have a very low threshold to seek professional medical assistance if you feel something unusual."
Breast cysts are also something to look out for especially in women aging between 35 and 50. Cysts are sacs filled with fluid and are usually benign, according to the Mayo Clinic. Although the exact causes are unclear, some studies indicate a link between stress and pain caused by cysts, to be more specific, the impact of stress on estrogen levels.
If you have dense breasts, as in they have more fibrous and glandular tissues, it can be harder to find masses or tumors in mammograms. The dense tissues and cancer show up as white on x-rays. It could also mean that you have a slightly higher chance of cancer. Women should actually ask doctors for MRI or ultrasound to detect cancer if they have dense breasts.
According to the Mayo Clinic, breast pain could be cyclic or noncyclic in nature. Dull or heavy ache just before or during your periods is normal. If there is sudden pain or inconsistent pain that doesn't align with your cycle, it might be a good idea to check with the doctor. Another way to differentiate hormonal-changes induced pain is whether it occurs in both breasts or just one. According to the Mayo Clinic, you must see the doc if the pain:
1. Continues daily for more than a couple of weeks;
2. Occurs in one specific area of your breast;
3. Seems to be getting worse over time;
4. Interferes with daily activities.
A 2013 survey published in BMJ Journals found that almost 33% of female marathon runners had breast pain during the event. Among those with pain, half were on their periods while 12% said that hormonal factors increased breast pain. At least one in seven said that working out made the breast pain worse. A good bra and sports bra (for workouts) are important to provide good support and alleviate the pain.
Pain can also be caused due to too much caffeine and mild trauma to the chest wall, according to gynecologist Lauren Streicher, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's medical school. She told Prevention, "Muscle wall tenderness can hang on for weeks. Most people don't connect the dots." Another reason can be an iron deficiency, which regulates thyroid hormones.