When you have a mammogram, your breast is compressed between two clear plates. The breast has to be compressed to reduce the thickness of the breast tissue. This is so the X-ray beam penetrates as few layers of overlapping tissue as possible. This minimizes radiation absorption and produces the best possible image.
Mammograms can be uncomfortable, and some women find them very painful.
Mammogram technicians adjust the compression force based on breast size, skin tautness, and a woman’s pain tolerance. This means that the pressure applied to a breast during a mammogram is different from woman to woman. Research has shown that the pressure varies from 4.4 pounds per square inch (psi) to .44 psi. Also, most mammography machines only display the compression force, so the technician doesn’t know exactly how much pressure is being applied to an individual breast. (Breasts are different sizes, so the same force applied to a different size means each breast is exposed to a different pressure.)
Researchers have developed a device that shows the average pressure applied to a breast during a mammogram. The device accounts for the size of the area the compression force is being applied to and calculates the actual pressure. By developing a standard pressure for mammograms, the researchers want to reduce discomfort while still producing quality images.
The research, “A Standard for Mechanical Compression in Mammography?” was presented on Nov. 30, 2014 at the Radiological Society of North American 2014 annual meeting.
In the study, the researchers randomly assigned 433 women who were getting screening mammograms to get three of the four compressions at a standardized force of 14 dekanewtons. The other compression was done at a target pressure of 1.45 psi.
They found that this standardized pressure reduced pain and still produced quality images without causing any higher radiation absorption:
- The women reported their pain was 10% to 24% lower than average.
- Reports of severe pain were 27% to 46% less common than when only force was considered during breast compression.
The researchers believe that their device will reduce the pain many women feel during a mammogram. They plan to do more research to figure out if 1.45 psi is the optimal target pressure.
If you find mammograms painful, there are other steps you can take to make sure the procedure causes you the least discomfort possible:
- Do your homework. Ask family, friends, and healthcare professionals about their experiences with various mammogram centers and technicians.
- Manage your expectations. A mammogram may be uncomfortable, but the bottom line is that it's your health and possibly your life at stake.
- Manage your anxiety. Bring a friend, your favorite music, or whatever best relaxes you.
- Stay in control. Before and during the mammogram, let the person doing the mammogram know what you need to make your mammogram experience the best it can be.
- Think about using a numbing gel on your breasts before you leave for your mammogram. It can be a bit messy, but it's safe as long as you aren't allergic to anesthetic medicines.
Never skip a scheduled mammogram without a very good reason AND without talking to your doctor about your concerns and your options. Visit the Breastcancer.org Mammograms section to learn more, including things to consider when deciding where to get a mammogram.