Like most women, my relationship with my boobs is aggressively love/hate. Sometimes my boobs are totally fine and great, and other times, like when they start swelling up before my period, they are my actual worst enemies. Unfortunately, dealing with boobs that inflate like painful loaves of rising bread is something almost all boob-having people deal with. To break down why this insane phenomenon happens, and what is and isn't normal about it, Cosmoplitan.com spoke with two OB/GYNs about sore, swollen breasts.
THY CUPS RUNNETH OVER (SOMETIMES)
There is nothing that feels like a bigger betrayal than watching your own boobs swell to the point of spilling over your favorite bras each month, but that's something that happens to a lot of women. As Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in Westchester County, New York, told Cosmopolitan.com, breast swelling usually happens over the course of a week and may cause a change in bra size. "Breast soreness typically occurs right before the period is about to come on," Dweck said. "It's part of the whole PMS phenomenon, and can be up to a week's worth of swelling to the point where your bra size might change."
Luckily, Dweck said there's something of a "remarkable recovery" at the onset of your period—those puppies deflate, and tenderness should gradually subside.
Dr. Rebecca Brightman, an OB/GYN in New York City, said the cause of the boob swelling and tenderness is a change in your body's hormones that occurs naturally over the course of your cycle. Basically, your progesterone levels start to surge in the second part of your cycle (starting with ovulation), and all those hormones can cause what she called "extreme breast tenderness." Some women experience it worse than others, and some lucky minxes don't experience it at all. It's most likely to hit you when you're in your forties. "It becomes pretty significant in women's forties because estrogen levels are really high," Brightman said. So if you're still in your twenties or thirties and are like "ha ha my boobs are perfect," maybe don't speak so soon. It's (probably) coming for you.
WHEN YOUR BOOBS HURT LIKE, ALL THE TIME
Boob swelling and tenderness that's in sync with your cycle is totally normal and not something you should be concerned about (unless you're so uncomfortable that you can't perform normal activities, in which case you should talk to your doctor). But breasts that are tender all month long can signify a few things, one of which is pregnancy. Brightman said it's not super common, but sometimes tender or swollen breasts can be the only early sign of pregnancy. You can talk to your doctor about this to decide if you're at risk for pregnancy and should be tested.
One of the other common causes of round-the-clock breast pain could be a change in your birth control regimen. Dweck explained that it's not abnormal for hormonal birth control to cause your boobs to be sore, especially during the first month or two, as your body adjusts to the influx of fancy new hormones.
The most important thing to look for when it comes to boob pain, as both Dweck and Brightman emphasized, is whether it's both or just one boob that hurts. Pain in both breasts is usually totally fine and probably just hormone-related, unless it persists well beyond your period. But pain in one breast can be symptomatic of an infection (even in non-lactating women) or a cyst. A cyst, Dweck explained, will feel like a tiny little bubble in your boob and should go away with your next period. If not, you can see a doctor, just to be sure. But an infection will likely be painful, could result in discharge from the nipple, and can be caused by something as simple as removing hair from your breasts or nipples. These infections are treatable with antibiotics, but you should be seen by a doctor.
LADY LUMPS THAT ARE TOO LUMPY
If you find that you're commonly experiencing sore, lumpy breasts (or finding a lot of cysts, basically), you could be one of the many women who suffers from fibrocystic breast disease. It's not totally clear how prevalent it is, but the estimated range (and it's a huge range) is that it affects somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of women.
Dweck described it as "a situation where you can get multiple cysts throughout both breasts, and they don't come and go with your menstrual cycle." These cysts are noncancerous, but should still be monitored. They can also just be downright painful, which very much sucks. There isn't an exact cure for this (typical), but Dweck said some women find relief with primrose oil, wearing well-fitting bras, and removing caffeine from their diets.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR BOOBS LESS BOTHERSOME
There have definitely been times I look down at the cranky boobs on my chest and think a nice ice pack might help calm them down, and Dweck said that's not entirely untrue. Some women find comfort with an ice pack, others find a nice heating pad does the trick. Basically, when it comes to calming down your angry breasts, you have to experiment until you find what makes you most comfortable and then go with that.
Dweck emphasized the elimination of caffeine, but Brightman said there aren't necessarily a ton of studies that link caffeine intake to increased breast soreness. If you find cutting back on caffeine helps you, that's great and do that. But if coffee is your source of life, don't make yourself more miserable. Both Dweck and Brightman said a lot of women they see find comfort in wearing a tight, well-fitting, supportive bra that cuts down on some of the bounciness and movement that only draw attention to how loudly your poor boobs are screaming. They also both said increasing your water intake and cutting back on salt (which causes water retention) is helpful for most women. And then of course, there's always Advil.
Basically, it's whatever you're most comfortable with. And I wish there were something MORE I could tell you. Like I wish I could say "this is how you definitely make your boobs feel better, YOU'RE WELCOME," but I cannot do that. Because boobs are a fickle beast, and hormones are sometimes the truest monster. Just know that if you have to hold your boobs while you're running up and down the stairs sometimes, because each bounce brings agony, you're not alone. We are an army of pained, big-breasted warriors.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.