There's a reason—and (hallelujah!) a way to make it stop
Period pain: It's just something we as women have come to accept, whether it's cramping, lower-back issues, or breast discomfort. But it's the latter—that tenderness, aching and overall feeling of heaviness in our breasts that comes around like clockwork—that really needs an explanation. And, boy, did we get one. (First, Your Menstrual Cycle Phases—Explained!)
That cyclical pain that sets in either right before the onset of a period—or throughout the duration of one—is actually known as fibrocystic breast condition (FBC), and it affects 72 percent of women according to a recent survey, says Lee Shulman, M.D., chief of the division of clinical genetics in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. With it affecting such a high number of ladies, it's surprising that it's rarely talked about—most women have never even heard of it. Here's what you need to know so you can finally get some relief.
What Is It?
FBC—AKA PMS Breasts—comes around like clockwork, and if your period is pretty predictable, Shulman says you're likely able to anticipate the onset of pain. And we're not talking about a slight twinge of discomfort here and there. Shulman says a significant number of women experience debilitating pain, enough so that they have to skip work. A recent survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of BioPharmX found that 45 percent of women avoid any sort of physical activity, 44 percent refuse sex, and 22 percent won't even go for a walk. (Related: How Much Pelvic Pain Is Normal for Menstrual Cramps?)
Why It Happens
Natural hormonal changes within your menstrual cycle are most likely the cause of pain, explains Shulman, though it could also be due to hormonal changes happening thanks to your birth control. Those on hormonal contraceptives, like the Pill, vaginal ring, and skin patch, are more likely to be affected than those on non-steroidal and non-hormonal options. (Read up on The Most Common Birth Control Side Effects.)
What to Do
Sadly, that same survey found that 42 percent of women who experience FBC don't do anything about it because they think it's "part of being a woman." Just say no to that line of thinking, because you can find relief. Shulman says that taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, like acetaminophen, either just before the onset of pain (if your cycle is predictable) or right when you start feeling it can help alleviate symptoms (just be sure to follow the dosage directions on the bottle so you're not taking too much). Or you could talk with your ob-gyn about changing your birth control method. "Something non-steroidal and non-hormonal is usually best at reducing breast pain," he says. (This is How to Find the Best Birth Control for You.)
After that, it's about finding what works for you. "Some women respond well to a better-fitting bra, while others find relief by decreasing the amount of caffeine consumption," he explains. "You could also try an OTC molecular iodine supplement, which research has shown can help, especially because the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 2 billion people are iodine-deficient. The supplement is based on the chain mechanism within FBC too, so it goes directly to the cause of the pain to hopefully give you relief faster." If supplements aren't really your thing, though, you could also try boosting your iodine intake by incorporating more seaweed, eggs, and seafood into your diet, as all contain higher levels of the element.
And at the end of the day, Shulman says it's important to remember that FBC is typically only associated with a predictable pain cycle. So if you experience nipple discharge, feel a lump, or notice that the pain has changed in any way (FBC usually feels the same month to month, he says), schedule a visit with your doctor to rule out other issues. (Don't let it be one of the 13 Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask Your Ob-Gyn!)