By Korin Miller-Self
Sometimes it’s easy to think your boobs have mystical powers, especially when it comes to predicting when your period will arrive. For some women, sore, sometimes painful breasts are a good tip-off that Aunt Flo is about to make a visit. While the heads-up is nice, sore breasts can be uncomfortable as hell.
Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone before their period. And if you fall into the sore-boob camp, you’ve probably dealt with it for your entire period-having life and never given it much thought (other than wondering why you have this not-so-fun side effect on top of the utter joy of actually having a period). But there’s a very real reason why sore breasts around your period are a thing, and even better, there are ways to find relief.
Breast soreness related to menstruation has a medical name: cyclical mastalgia. As you can probably guess, it has a lot to do with hormones.
The jury is still out on the exact mechanisms behind breast soreness during your period. But experts do know that hormone levels fluctuate before and during your period, and that can impact how your boobs feel, Sherry A. Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period, tells SELF.
Specifically, increasing levels of estrogen in the first two weeks of your cycle can cause your breasts to get bigger, while increasing amounts of progesterone during the second half may make your milk ducts puff up. “Together this results in swelling and breast tenderness,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. Hormonal fluctuations can also lead to fibrocystic breast changes (i.e., developing non-cancerous lumps in your boobs) before your period, which can contribute to tenderness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You may have heard that tender boobs are common during pregnancy, and it’s due to a similar mechanism. During pregnancy, progesterone levels continue to rise in a woman’s body, so breast soreness may happen and last for some time even though your period is MIA, Dr. Wider says.
Sore breasts might seem like a fact of life, but you don’t need to just suffer through the experience.
Taking an NSAID like Motrin or Aleve can help with the inflammation, Susan Loeb-Zeitlin, M.D., an ob/gyn at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF. Making sure your bras fit correctly can also help, she says, since having a too-loose or too-tight fit can make your boobs feel worse.
If you’re on combined hormonal birth control and boob soreness is new to you, it’s worth looking into other options, Dr. Ross says. Birth control impacts everyone differently, but some forms that use less estrogen can help reduce the pain. You can also try putting a warm compress on your boobs to promote blood flow, Dr. Wider says, which can help relieve muscle tension that makes breast soreness worse.
In the vast majority of cases, breast tenderness around your period is normal and harmless (other than making you uncomfortable). But in some very rare cases, breast tenderness can be a sign of breast cancer, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says, specifically a rare and aggressive kind called inflammatory breast cancer. This is more likely if the tenderness is on one side and you’ve never experienced it before. Again, that’s not common and really not something you should stress about, especially since inflammatory breast cancer only makes up 1 to 5 percent of breast cancer diagnoses in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. If you’re having sore breasts along with symptoms like nipple discharge, dimpling, or a rash, head to your doctor just in case.
And even if the only thing you’re dealing with is period-related boob soreness, you can and should still bring it up with your doctor if it’s bothering you. Together, you can figure out the best way for you—and your breasts—to find some relief.