There is no doubt about it, our breasts can be confusing, amazing and darn right frustrating at times. Many of us will worry at some point in our lives about our breasts, but there are a number of factors that can influence changes in size, shape or sensitivity. Although please note: when your breasts feel strange, they are usually trying to tell you something about your body. Want to learn more about these all-important mammary glands? Take a look at everything you need to know about breasts.
Let’s discuss the basics first.
Breasts are made up of glandular, fatty and supportive tissue which extends from the collarbone down to the underarm and across the chest area. Within the glandular tissue is a complex network of lobes, and within each lobe are smaller bulbs, lobules which are responsible for producing milk. Both the lobes and lobules are connected by milk ducts, and these tubes carry milk to the nipple. During pregnancy, the lobules grow and produce milk for nursing mothers. The remaining fatty and connective tissue of the breast provide overall shape and support. This area is also where the nerves, blood vessel and lymphatic vessels are situated.
Many women worry if their nipples look odd or if their areola (the small ring of pigmented skin around the nipple) is an unusual colour.
Try not to worry, just like breasts, nipples come in all different shapes, sizes and colours. They can:
- Point up or down
- Appear flat, puffy or inverted
- Be dark or pale
- Be big or small
- Look different on each breast
Hormones released during pregnancy can actually make nipples darker, but this will eventually fade.
Breast pain or mastalgia, is one of the most common breast-related symptoms women can experience. However, when we experience breast pain, all too often we jump to the worst possible conclusions. Breast pain does not automatically mean that you have breast cancer; there are a whole host of reasons that your breasts might feel sore or tender.
You Are Wearing The Wrong Bra
A common cause of breast pain is from wearing the wrong type of bra. An ill-fitting bra can pinch and poke your two prized assets, causing discomfort and breast tenderness.
Have you been doing a lot of exercise lately? All that jiggling and bouncing, plus an unsupportive sports bra can cause strain on the supportive ligaments in your breasts.
Similarly, have you been doing a lot of push-ups or chest exercises? If this is the case, that achy breast pain might actually be the result of muscle soreness on your chest wall or ribcage, aka your pectoral muscles. According to recent surveys up to 80% of ladies are wearing the wrong size of bra, consider taking a trip to lingerie section of your local department store where you will be able to get an accurate cup measurement.
Too Much Caffeine
We all love our morning cappuccino, but there is some evidence to suggest that too much coffee can increase breast pain. The caffeine contained in coffee can disrupt the levels of stress and reproductive hormones in your body, leaving your breasts feeling swollen and achy.
Hard-core caffeine junkies may choose a little boob pain over an uncaffeinated life, but if you are experiencing some unexplained tenderness, try cutting down on those Americanos.
Your Period Is On Its Way
Your breast tissue is naturally tender and during Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS); swelling and tenderness will normally occur during the luteal phase, which is the second half of your cycle.
At around day 21 in a 28 day cycle, the increase in progesterone and oestrogen production causes your milk ducts to expand, increasing fullness and triggering tender breasts. This pain is often referred to as “cyclical” breast pain as it occurs on a regular schedule. If you’re lucky enough to have a regular cycle, you can actually use this breast soreness to determine when your period is on its way.
Just as cyclical breast pain signals your scheduled monthly period, unpredictable breast pain can be a sign of perimenopause (stage before menopause). If you are aged between 45 and 55, big hormonal changes are starting to take place, and breast tenderness is perfectly normal.
If you are under the age of 40, try not to worry about random breast pain. Early menopause can happen before the age of 40, but is very rare and normally occurs along with other symptoms, such as not getting your period.
That same hormone, progesterone, which causes breast tenderness during your menstrual cycle also kicks into action during the early stages of pregnancy. One or two weeks after you conceive your breasts may feel sensitive and tender to touch; this will last for a while as your progesterone levels continue to rise during your pregnancy.
PMS vs Pregnancy: How Can I Tell The Difference?
As mentioned above, the symptoms of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) can on the surface seem very similar to those of early pregnancy. However, there are some subtle differences you can look out for.
Increased levels of progesterone levels during both initial conception and during your period are both common causes of breast tenderness. However, the severity of breast pain can be more severe right before your period and tends to ease after or during your period.
During early pregnancy, the tenderness and swelling usually occurs one or two weeks after you conceive and it will continue for a while as progesterone levels continue to rise during pregnancy.
One of the early signs of pregnancy can be a light vaginal bleeding or spotting which is light pink or dark brown in colour. This typically happens 10-14 days after conception and it not heavy enough to fill pads or tampons.
PMS occurs before your period; you will not experience any vaginal bleeding until your “real” period arrives and the flow will be noticeably heavier compared to the light pregnancy spotting.
You can have mild cramps throughout your pregnancy, and these will feel similar to light cramps that you would experience during your period. However, these cramps will be felt more in the lower stomach or lower back and can last up to a couple of weeks or months.
PMS cramps differ slightly, as you may experience dysmenorrhea pain 24 to 48 hours prior to your period. This pain will decrease during your period and eventually disappear by the end of your flow.
Morning sickness is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy. Nausea can occur as early as three weeks after you become pregnant, and remember, despite the pre-lunch connotations, you may experience morning sickness at any time of the day. Unless you have an underlying issue such as Endometriosis, you shouldn’t experience any nausea or vomiting before your period.
Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. When you have PMS, it is likely you will hit the up your Cadbury’s favourite. Typically, when your period is on its way, your appetite will be similar to a ravenous bear, craving anything sugary, salty or carbohydrate based.
When you are pregnant, in addition to highly specific food cravings, you may be completely adverse to certain smells or tastes – even foods that you may have previously liked.
Some women also develop pica, a compulsion to eat items that have zero nutritional value such as ice, paint flakes or metal.
The Ultimate Test
The easiest way to tell the difference between PMS symptoms and early pregnancy is, you guessed it, a pregnancy test.
Alternatively, pay a visit to your doctor who will be able to address any concerns you may have. The sooner you find out you are pregnant, the sooner you can plan accordingly.
By Ruth Ellen Logan