If you're experiencing pain above your breast, reasonably near your heart, it's important not to jump to conclusions. While it's possible the discomfort could be serious or even life-threatening, there's also a long list of other, less worrisome potential causes.
"There are a number of conditions or injuries that may cause discomfort in the area above the breast," says Elizabeth A. Joy, MD, MPH, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, a sports medicine and family medicine practitioner with Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah, and an adjunct professor at the University of Utah.
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Musculoskeletal Pain Above the Breast
The pain could stem from a bone or muscle injury, Dr. Joy says. Bone-wise, the pain is most likely to result from a rib injury. "Ribs that rotate or slip out of place can result in achy discomfort lasting days or weeks, or a sharp positional pain," she says. "Physicians, physical therapists and chiropractors can often manipulate ribs back into alignment."
Pain above your breast could also mean that you pulled a muscle, according to the Mayo Clinic. A pulled muscle in your chest could cause pain that radiates to your breast itself and the surrounding areas. Dr. Joy also notes that, if the pain feels sudden or stabbing, it could be a muscle spasm.
If the cartilage between the ribs becomes inflamed, you may also experience pain above your breast. The medical term for this condition is costochondritis, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While there isn't one known cause of costochondritis, it might result from chest injury, heavy lifting, strains from coughing, certain types of arthritis or an infection, such as a viral infection or an infection that occurs after surgery or IV drug use.
"Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium can often help alleviate the discomfort," Dr. Joy says. Advil and Aleve are widely available ibuprofen and naproxen sodium medications, respectively.
Beyond the musculoskeletal possibilities, heart disease may also be a potential reason you're feeling pain above your breast. "Women, particularly those older than age 50, should consider heart disease as a cause for their anterior chest pain, especially those with underlying risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity," Dr. Joy says.
Chest pain associated with underlying heart disease is technically called angina, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The pain may arise when your heart doesn't get enough blood.
If the pain is above your left chest specifically, or extending up to the left shoulder, it may be a condition called pericarditis, according to the Mayo Clinic. This means that the membrane surrounding your heart is inflamed. Usually, pericarditis passes on its own, but not always. The AHA recommends that all chest pain be checked out by a doctor.
In some cases, this pain could be really serious, and you may need emergency medical treatment to prevent a heart attack, according to the AHA. Dr. Joy specifies that "pain that persists and is accompanied by additional symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness, experienced by at-risk individuals is a medical emergency and should prompt a call to 911."
Read more: Will Exercise Help Angina?
"An often-overlooked source of chest pain is pulmonary embolism," Dr. Joy says. A pulmonary (lung-related) embolism is a blood clot that originates in another part of the body and travels to the blood vessels of the lungs, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Other symptoms that accompany a pulmonary embolism, according to Dr. Joy, include rapid breathing and shortness of breath. "These can be a medical emergency and should prompt assessment by a health care provider," she says.
While several of these causes of pain above the breast sound scary, it's important to remember that there are many potential reasons that aren't an emergency. Even so, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor when you're not sure.
- Elizabeth Joy, MD, MPH, past president, American College of Sports Medicine; adjunct professor, University of Utah; sports medicine and family medicine practitioner, LiVe Well Center, Intermountain Healthcare, Salt Lake City, Utah
- Mayo Clinic: “Breast Pain”
- Mayo Clinic: “Pericarditis”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Costochondritis”
- American Heart Association: “Angina (Chest Pain)”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Pulmonary Embolism”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.