Fibrocystic breast changes

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at June 25, 2016
StartDiseasesFibrocystic breast changes

Fibrocystic breast disease (also known as fibrocystic breast changes or simply fibrocystic breasts) describes a condition in which the breasts develop cysts. While not harmful, they can be incredibly painful, and roughly 50% of women who are of childbearing age experience them. The lifetime possibility for a woman to develop fibrocystic breasts is between 70% and 90%. 

Contents

Definition & Facts

Fibrocystic breast disease is a benign or noncancerous breast condition that causes painful lumps in the breast tissue. The lumps typically move freely, which means that they aren’t attached to anything around them and that they can be felt from all sides.

Fibrocystic breast lumps are usually smooth in texture, so there will be no jagged or rough edges. Fibrocystic breast disease typically occurs in women who are of childbearing age and symptoms usually subside after menopause

Symptoms & Complaints

Common symptoms include:

It is typical that the lumps will enlarge during the period and shrink, but not disappear, after the period has ended. Women with irregular periods or heavy flows report symptoms of greater severity than women who have lighter periods or are on birth control pills

Causes

As hormones increase and fluctuate with the menstrual cycle, the tissues in the breasts can change. Women with fibrocystic breasts are more sensitive to these changes, and the years of hormone fluctuations cause small breast cysts to form, eventually resulting in swelling and pain.

By the time a woman is in her late twenties to early thirties, also referred to as the childbearing years, these cysts have fluctuated and grown to a large enough size that the woman begins to feel swelling and pain. Large cysts do not usually occur until after 35, when the cycle of hormone fluctuation has reached a general peak causing the cysts to reach their largest size. 

Diagnosis & Tests

Diagnosis is typically done through breast examination and symptom evaluation. In some cases the doctor will also perform a breast exam using a sonogram or perform a mammogram. This gives the doctor a better look to determine exactly what the lumps are and to rule out cancer. When examined, the fibrocystic lumps are revealed to be comprised of fluid-filled sacs. There is also a significant amount of fibrous scar-like tissue and the breast lobules will appear enlarged.

Treatment & Therapy

In most cases there is no treatment or therapy that can be prescribed by the doctor. Only in extreme cases will a doctor intervene medically, usually in an effort to remove an extremely large lump that is causing additional concerns. Home treatment for the pain and discomfort of fibrocystic breasts is the most common treatment.

Many physicians suggest alternating between heat therapy and cold compresses. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen are also recommended as pain relievers. It is also recommended that women with fibrocystic breast changes wear a well-fitting sports bra to provide maximum support.

A few studies have shown a reduction of symptoms by making simple dietary changes including reducing caffeine and salt intake as well as beginning daily vitamin supplements. These findings are not considered medical fact as more research is required to find the link between diet and fibrocystic breast changes.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Unfortunately, there is no confirmed way to prevent fibrocystic breast changes; however many home remedies have been found to be effective in some small studies. 

One home remedy is to reduce the consumption of coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda. Some studies have shown a link between caffeine consumption and fibrous breast conditions. In the study, 97% of the women who reduced their caffeine consumption showed improvements after four months. The most significant improvements were found in women with the most severe symptoms. 

Women should make sure their thyroid levels are normal. People with low thyroid levels have demonstrated increased levels of breast pain and breast cysts. This suggests that low levels of iodine, known to be an important mineral to proper thyroid function, may be a contributing factor in fibrocystic breast changes. Studies involving rats and iodine have shown that taking an iodine supplement could aid in preventing changes in breast tissue. 

Additional vitamin supplements may play a role in reducing the chance of having fibrocystic breasts. There are supplements designed to help the body with estrogen production and hormonal balance. Vitamin E may relieve symptoms associated with both PMS and fibrocystic breasts. B vitamins are known to improve liver function which is important in the processing and elimination of excess estrogen from the body. 

Staying regular may help as well. Some studies have shown a link between fibrocystic breasts and a diet low in fiber. Women who have less than three bowel movements per week may not be eliminating toxins efficiently. Increasing the daily intake of fiber through a high fiber diet and complex carbohydrates can allow for more regular bowel movements and consistent elimination of toxins, which may help decrease the risk of fibrocystic breast changes.

Opting not to wear a bra may also be a preventative measure against fibrocystic breasts. Some research shows that wearing a bra can constrict normal circulation causing hormones and toxins to build up and settle in the breast tissue. While it’s unlikely that many women would willingly ditch their bra, it is possible to switch out the normal bra for a sports bra, which offers support without the restriction of movement found with a normal bra. It’s also recommended to go without a bra as often as possible while at home. 

The best form of prevention is controlling estrogen levels. The above suggestions may help to reduce the risk of fibrocystic breasts, but it’s always important to consult with one's physician to discuss breast health in general and any breast changes the patient is experiencing.