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Fibrocystic Breast Changes

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Fibrocystic breast changes happen when women develop fluid-filled cysts along with areas of fibrosis in one or both breasts. (You may see this referred to as fibrocystic breast disease, but it’s not really a disease.) Fibrosis is a thickening of the breast tissue that you and your doctor can feel through the skin. It can be somewhat firm, ropy, or rubbery. Fibrosis also can happen by itself without any cysts forming.

Fibrocystic breast changes are pretty routine, they don’t require treatment, and they don’t raise your risk of breast cancer. Fibrocystic breast changes are common; about one-half of all women will experience them at some point in their lives. These changes usually occur in premenopausal women and are affected by shifts in hormone levels. You may notice that your symptoms worsen just before your menstrual period. In addition to lumpiness and swelling throughout one or both breasts, you may have pain, tenderness, and/or nipple discharge.

Fibrocystic breast changes can usually be diagnosed through a clinical breast exam and a symptom history. Your doctor also may use imaging tests such as mammography and ultrasound to examine the breast(s). In rare cases, individual cysts may require further investigation with ultrasound, and some may need to be drained and possibly biopsied. Learn more about breast cysts.

If you have bothersome symptoms, the following strategies may help:

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (brand names: Advil, Motrin) — read labels and consult with your doctor to make sure you’re taking them safely.
  • Apply warm or cool compresses to breasts when they’re most painful.
  • Wear a comfortable, supportive bra (such as a cotton sports bra).
  • Avoid large amounts of caffeine, salt, and/or fat in the diet, which some women find can worsen symptoms.
  • Have a doctor drain any very large cysts that are causing pain.
  • Start taking an oral contraceptive, or stop taking it if you’re already on one (the shifts in hormone levels may help some women).

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are interfering with your quality of life. For additional information, see the section on mastalgia (breast pain).

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