Fibrocystic breasts: Symptoms and causes

Overview

Fibrocystic breast changes. Fibrocystic breast changes lead to the development of fluid-filled round or oval sacs (cysts) and more prominent scar-like (fibrous) tissue, which can make breasts feel tender, lumpy or ropy.

Fibrocystic breasts are composed of tissue that feels lumpy or rope-like in texture. Doctors call this nodular or glandular breast tissue.

It’s not at all uncommon to have fibrocystic breasts. More than half of women experience fibrocystic breast changes at some point in their lives. In fact, medical professionals have stopped using the term “fibrocystic breast disease” and now simply refer to “fibrocystic breasts” or “fibrocystic breast changes” because having fibrocystic breasts isn’t really a disease. Breast changes categorized as fibrocystic are considered normal.

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Although many women with fibrocystic breasts don’t have symptoms, some women experience breast pain, tenderness and lumpiness — especially in the upper, outer area of the breasts. Breast symptoms tend to be most bothersome just before menstruation. Simple self-care measures can usually relieve discomfort associated with fibrocystic breasts.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of fibrocystic breasts may include:

  • Breast lumps or areas of thickening that tend to blend into the surrounding breast tissue
  • Generalized breast pain or tenderness
  • Breast lumps that fluctuate in size with the menstrual cycle
  • Green or dark brown nonbloody nipple discharge that tends to leak without pressure or squeezing
  • Breast changes that are similar in both breasts
  • Monthly increase in breast pain or lumpiness from midcycle (ovulation) to just before your period
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Fibrocystic breast changes occur most often in women in their 20s to 50s. Rarely do postmenopausal women experience fibrocystic breast changes, unless they’re on hormone therapy.

When to see a doctor

Most fibrocystic breast changes are normal. However, make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • You find a new breast lump or area of prominent thickening
  • You have specific areas of continuous or worsening breast pain
  • Breast changes persist after your period
  • Your doctor evaluated a breast lump but now it seems to be bigger or otherwise changed

Causes

Breast anatomy. Each breast contains 15 to 20 lobes of glandular tissue, arranged like the petals of a daisy. The lobes are further divided into smaller lobules that produce milk for breast-feeding. Small tubes (ducts) conduct the milk to a reservoir that lies just beneath your nipple.

The exact cause of fibrocystic breast changes isn’t known, but experts suspect that reproductive hormones — especially estrogen — play a role.

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Fluctuating hormone levels during your menstrual cycle can cause breast discomfort and areas of lumpy breast tissue that feel tender, sore and swollen. Fibrocystic breast changes tend to be more bothersome before your menstrual period, and the pain and lumpiness tends to clear up or lessen once your menstrual period begins.

When examined under a microscope, fibrocystic breast tissue includes distinct components such as:

  • Fluid-filled round or oval sacs (cysts)
  • A prominence of scar-like fibrous tissue (fibrosis)
  • Overgrowth of cells (hyperplasia) lining the milk ducts or milk-producing tissues (lobules) of the breast
  • Enlarged breast lobules (adenosis)

Risk factors

Having fibrocystic breasts doesn’t increase your risk of breast cancer.

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