Fibrocystic Breasts

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The term “fibrocystic breasts” is a broad description for a benign (noncancerous) breast tissue condition.
Breasts consist of three types of tissue:
  • Glandular tissue, which is made up of the milk ducts and glands
  • Fibrous tissue, which supports the breast
  • Fat, which fills the spaces between the other tissues. (It is the amount of fat in the breast that gives the breast its size.)

As the term implies, fibrocystic breast tissue can feel fibrous (as in thickened and rope-like) and cystic (or lumpy). The more glandular and fibrous tissue a woman has, the more likely she is to have fibrocystic breasts.


Having fibrocystic breast tissue is a common, benign (noncancerous) condition that affects more than half of women at some point in their lives. Fibrocystic breasts occur due to swelling of the glandular tissues of the breasts caused by changes in the menstrual cycle hormones (estrogen and progesterone). Women commonly notice the following:
  • Breast pain or tenderness,
  • Lumpiness and/or thickening of the breast tissue,
  • Fluctuating size of the breasts, and/or
  • Green, yellow, or dark brown non-bloody nipple discharge.

Fibrocystic breast changes are most common in women before menopause. However, after menopause women may experience symptoms of fibrocystic breasts, especially if they are on hormone therapy.


How Are Fibrocystic Breasts Diagnosed?

Fibrocystic breast symptoms are common around the menstrual cycle (period). However, if you find a new breast lump or change in the breast that persists after your period, you should schedule an evaluation with your health care provider. He or she will ask you about your symptoms and menstrual history, as well as your personal and family medical history. They will also perform a clinical breast exam. Additional tests may include:
  • A mammogram, which is a special x-ray of the breast
  • A breast ultrasound, which uses sound waves to evaluate of the breast tissue


Treatment and Management

Treatment for fibrocystic breasts is needed only if you have symptoms that bother you. If a cyst (fluid-filled sac) has developed in the breast tissue, your health care provider may be able to remove the fluid with a fine needle, which may relieve the pain.

The following lifestyle changes may also help control symptoms:
  • Limit or eliminate caffeine. Many women swear by this dietary change, although medical studies of the effect of caffeine on breast pain and other premenstrual symptoms have been inconclusive.
  • Wear a firm support bra, preferably a sports bra, to limit movement of the breast tissue that can cause pulling and inflammation of the breasts. Wear the bra during exercise and while sleeping, especially when the breasts may be more sensitive.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, as directed by your health care provider.
  • Keep a journal of the breast pain. This may be helpful in determining the timing of your breast symptoms in relation to your period or with other triggers, like caffeine intake.
  • Use a warm compress or take a warm shower.
  • Decrease the fat in your diet, which may improve breast pain by altering the fatty acid balance.
  • Reduce or stop taking hormone therapy if you are menopausal. Make sure you talk with your health care provider before changing or stopping medications.
  • Consider taking a monophasic oral contraceptive pill if you are using oral contraceptives. If you are already taking using a hormonal birth control, you may require an adjustment. Ask your health care provider if taking an oral contraceptive pill is safe for you.
The following vitamins and supplements may be recommended by your health care provider:
  • Evening primrose oil. This supplement appears to change the balance of fatty acids in your cells, which may reduce breast pain. Some doctors recommend taking a 1,000-mg capsule up to 3 times a day. Start at 500 mg daily. Take evening primrose oil with food, and do not take it at bedtime because it can cause stomach upset and reflux problems. For optimal benefit, take evening primrose oil for at least 3 months.
  • Vitamin E. Early studies showed a possible beneficial effect of vitamin E on breast pain in premenstrual women who experience breast pain that fluctuates during the menstrual cycle; however, the medical literature to date remains inconclusive. Some doctors recommend taking 400 IU up to twice daily. The supplement is well tolerated. Taking more than 400 IU daily can lead to blood thinning and may cause problems for individuals with bleeding disorders or stomach ulcers. For optimal benefit, take evening primrose oil for at least 3 months.