Fibrocystic Breast Changes: Lumps That Are Normal

IMAGE Do your breasts feel lumpy? It may be that you are experiencing fibrocystic breast changes—a benign condition that occurs in women of childbearing age. It sounds very unglamorous, but the human breast is no more than a lumpy gland made up of milk glands, ducts, and the tissues that separate and support them. Most breasts have at least one or two lumps; however, if your breast feels especially lumpy and uncomfortable, you are probably experiencing fibrocystic breast changes.

What Are Fibrocystic Changes?

Fibrocystic changes are benign breast changes. The medical literature used to refer to them as fibrocystic disease . That was before fibrocystic changes were found to be no more a disease than menstruation or menopause . The breast tissue may feel dense with an irregular area of thicker tissue having a lumpy or ridge-like surface. You might also feel tiny bead-like masses scattered throughout the breasts. Your breasts may feel tender, swollen, and full with a dull, heavy pain. They may be sensitive to touch with a burning sensation. This discomfort is normal and does not indicate the presence of disease. For some women the pain is so severe that they cannot exercise or lie on their stomachs. Fibrocystic changes usually occur in both breasts, most often in the upper outer quadrant and the underside of the breast where most of the milk-producing glands are located.

Why Does This Happen?

Fibrocystic changes are associated with hormonal shifts in estrogen and progesterone, which affect the breast tissue. During the menstrual cycle, the breasts swell as the milk glands and ducts enlarge and the breasts retain water. After menstruation, the breast swelling goes down and the breasts return to normal.Fibrocystic changes generally begin when women are in their 20s or 30s and usually last until menopause. For a small number of women, the condition worsens over the years, causing constant pain and lumpiness. In general, some of the lumps become permanent and may or may not shrink after menopause.

Breast Cysts

Some women with fibrocystic changes develop cysts in their breasts. A cyst is a fluid-filled sac that is usually smooth, firm, movable, and sometimes tender. The cyst will generally enlarge before the menstrual period and shrink afterwards. A large cyst may be round and feel like an eyeball when pressed with the eyelid closed. If you are concerned about a lump, your healthcare provider can determine whether or not it warrants further attention. Determining whether a lump is a cyst or something more serious can be determined by a simple office procedure known as fine needle aspiration . A fine-gauge needle is inserted into the lump and fluid is withdrawn. If the lump is a cyst, it will collapse once the fluid is removed. If there is concern about the lump, a needle biopsy or a surgical biopsy can be done.

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