Fibrocystic changes are a very common cause of breast lumps in premenopausal women, affecting around 60% of women according to the US National Institutes of Health. They usually affect women aged 30-50 and are rare in postmenopausal women and those who take combined oral contraceptives. They can make your breasts feel sore, tender and lumpy, typically in the run up to your period.
They are benign and not harmful, which makes breast ‘changes’ a preferable term to breast ‘disease’. The exact cause isn’t known although they are linked to hormonal changes in the body prior to menstruation, which cause the breast tissue, ducts and blood vessels to enlarge and retain fluid. This usually subsides once your period starts.
The breast is a combination of glands, which produce milk during lactation, nerves, blood vessels, lymph, subcutaneous fat beneath the skin, and fibrous tissue, which acts as a ‘net’ to keep things together. Think of them as ‘active’ parts of the body that respond quickly to hormonal fluctuations.
You may feel overall tenderness to the breast or notice that part of it feels harder or thicker. You may notice a change in the texture of the skin or nipple area. Typically any lumpiness will be in the upper areas of the breast towards your pectorals and armpits. They may ache, feel heavier than usual or be very sensitive to touch. This can come and go or be ongoing. Symptoms can range from mild and irritating to distressing.
Fibrocystic changes are benign and usually disappear naturally once your hormone levels equalise – your period starts or when you reach the menopause. However, if you’ve found a lumpy area and are feeling anxious it’s best to see your GP for a health check to put your mind at rest.
Tests to check your breast health include a mammogram (overall breast x-ray), an ultrasound for a closer look, or a biopsy, which is when a fine needle is used to check the tissues.
There are several things you can do at home to help ease discomfort prior to menstruation: –
Finding lumps in your breast can be distressing and the immediate instinct is to panic. However, in most cases lumps are benign and linked to hormonal production. Your GP or local Well Woman Clinic can offer further advice.