Boobs are a many splendored thing. They make our clothes look great, they can feed humans (if that’s something you decide you want to do), and they make for lots of extra fun during sexytime. But, breasts are also a part of our bodies that can cause us occasional stress and health issues. Sometimes they hurt a lot, and many of us have absolutely no idea why.
About half of all women experience breast pain at some point in their lives. Usually, it pops up during our periods, but sometimes it can show up for other reasons too. It’s not usually anything to freak out about, but it can still be pretty annoying. That’s why I talked to Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, a board-certified physician in family and integrative medicine and author of the upcoming Bodywise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing, to figure out what makes our boobs so damn sore, and what we can do about it.
Here, the common and not-so-common reasons your lady lumps might be bringing the hurt:
1. You’re wearing the wrong bra.
Why it happens: Supporting the girls is very important, especially if you have a large chest. “Large breasts tend to have more pain because they have more weight,” explains Dr. Abrams. “It’s partly from stretching of the ligaments inside the breast called Cooper’s ligaments—because, you know, we like to name female body parts after men—but large breasts can also cause pain in the neck and shoulders, and they can even cause headaches.”
What to do: Get a proper bra fitting, and make sure you’re buying the right kind of bra. “The droopy, floppy cute little lace thing is not gonna work,” says Dr. Abrams. Instead, she advises, buy something with “solid construction and thick shoulder straps.”
2. You take birth control pills.
Why it happens: Birth control is an amazing invention, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws, particularly when it comes to sore and tender breasts. “Estrogen is the primary driver of breast pain,” says Dr. Abrams,”so birth control pills can certainly cause breast pain because of that component.”
What to do: “If breast pain is caused by an excess of estrogen, decreasing estrogen should also decrease the pain,” offers Dr. Abrams. That means talking to your doctor about changing your prescription or about other ways to naturally decrease estrogen, like getting enough exercise and altering your diet. Dr. Abrams says a diet rich in vegetables—particularly cruciferous vegetables, like kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts—can help regulate estrogen in the body. You could also try switching to a non-hormonal birth control method, like the copper-T IUD.
3. It’s that time of the month.
Why it happens: Breast pain is cyclical for about 75 percent of women—meaning it shows up around the same time in your menstrual cycle every month. “Breast pain is typically because there’s stretching of the ductal tissue in the breast,” says Dr. Abrams. That’s what happens during ovulation and in the weeks before your period, and that’s why everything feels so tender.
What to do: Dr. Abrams says Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, and Evening Primrose oil have all shown positive results in helping to lessen breast pain. There’s also some evidence that Iodine supplements can help ease cyclical breast pain, particularly aqueous iodine. But, there’s a catch. “Too much iodine will disrupt thyroid function,” cautions Dr. Abrams. “So, you shouldn’t take more than 3-6 mg per day.” To lessen this risk, she suggests a product called Violet, which is an iodine supplement that contains selenium to promote healthy thyroid function and is made specifically for breast pain. Of course, you should always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
4. You’re drinking too much caffeine.
Why it happens: If you’re a big coffee or soda drinker, caffeine could actually worsen your cyclical breast pain. Says Dr. Abrams, “When you look at the actual evidence on caffeine, it doesn’t look very significant. But, a lot of women do experience relief when they quit caffeine.”
What to do: Dump the caffeine. Or, if you can’t do that, at least decrease your intake and then see how you feel. Dr. Abrams also recommends herbal diuretics, like dandelion leaf, which can help decrease fluid in the breast tissue.
5. You’re pregnant.
Why it happens: Pregnancy increases both estrogen and progesterone, which can make breasts more sensitive. The pain could be in the breast itself, or mostly concentrated in your nipples. It could be months before the tenderness subsides.
What to do: “Compresses can be helpful, in addition to supportive bras,” says Dr. Abrams. Unfortunately, your breasts will probably keep on hurting, even after you have the baby. Luckily, there’s a fix for that too. “For nursing women, the breasts hurt because the ducts are all being stretched with milk,” explains Dr. Abrams. “Putting a cold cabbage leaf from the refrigerator on your breast is actually really helpful.”
6. You need to see a doctor.
Why it happens: Breast pain is very rarely a sign of a serious problem. In fact, Dr. Abrams points out that pain is a presenting factor in fewer than one percent of breast cancer cases. Still, it’s good to be aware of the signs of a bigger issue. “If pain is on one side, we worry a bit more,” says Dr. Abrams. “Obviously, if there’s any associated mass, we worry. And, we worry if there are skin changes or redness… There’s a type of cancer called inflammatory breast cancer where the breast actually gets red and hot. Those are the things to look out for.”
What to do: If you notice that your boobs ache constantly, rather than cyclically, or one breast is red, swollen, hot to the touch, or has unexplained skin changes, it’s time to get to a doctor asap.
Related-ish: 6 Reasons Your Lady Parts Might Be Itching