Reducing Mammogram Pain

Reviewed by Grace Juniaty, MD

Do You Fear the Pain of Wellness?


Mammograms help detect cancers that are too small to feel. When you say mammo­grams, what comes into your mind? Some women compare it to crushing the testicles. Yet, this analogy is an exaggeration unless you are a woman with myalgia or chronic pain.

Numerous female patients complain of pain while going through their mammography examination, while others do not feel anything. The documented incidence of pain associated with screening mammography varies from 1% to 62%. Your pain level can vary with each mammogram depending upon:

  • Size of your breasts
  • Timing of the exam in relation to your menstrual cycle
  • Variations in positioning for the mammogram

Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

These symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer:

  • Lump or lumpiness in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Any change or feel of the breast and nipple.
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Unexplained redness, swelling, skin irritation, itchiness, or rash on the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

Breast Cancer Sign and Symptoms

These are also common causes of benign breast lumps:
  • Breast infection
  • Fibrocystic breast disease (“lumpy breasts”)
  • Fibroadenoma (noncancerous tumor)
  • Fat necrosis (damaged tissue) the mass can’t be distinguished from a cancerous lump without a biopsy.

Report any of these symptoms to your healthcare provider. They may warrant a mammogram prior to the standard age for screening.

Time For Your Mammogram

The American Cancer Society advises women with an average risk to begin mammo­gram screenings yearly at age 45 until age 54 and then continuing every two years. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women start screening every two years beginning at age 50 until age 74. However, both groups agree for women to start the mammogram screening at age 40.

Those with a high risk of breast cancer, including women with a family history of breast cancer or who are in remission from treatment may benefit by beginning screening mammo­grams before age 40 and should follow a schedule prescribed by their oncologist or family physician.

Reduce Mammogram Pain

Reduce Pain and Anxiety

Less than 10% of women called back for further testing have breast cancer. In addition to pre-existing health conditions that can exacerbate pain, breast inflammation may accompany menstruation.

  • Tell the scheduler if you suffer from chronic pain and may require extra time for your visit.
  • Ask if the imaging center has a certain technologist who is trained in working with chronic pain patients.
  • Avoid coffee and tea the day of your exam. The Mayo Clinic notes that lowering or eliminating caffeine intake may be helpful to reduce breast pain, although research on the subject is not conclusive.
  • On the day of your exam, don’t put deodorant, powder, lotion, or perfume under your arms or on your breasts. The metallic particles in some of these products could show up on the image, according to the Mayo Clinic, which could lead to confusion or additional scans.
  • If you’re pre-menopausal, don’t schedule your mammogram right before or during your menstrual cycle. Wait 7–14 days after the start of menstruation when the hormonal changes are the least likely to bother you.
  • Ask your physician if you can take an over-the-counter (Tylenol®, Advil®, Aleve®, etc.) or a prescription pain reliever before your appointment to help reduce discomfort during and after the procedure.
  • Consider bringing a robe from home if you are concerned about the low temperature. Since you only need to remove your top, wear a two-piece outfit with flats or other comfortable shoes.

Screening mammograms are the best method for detecting breast cancer early. Research has shown a 25% reduction in deaths from breast cancer among women who are screened regularly. There are other imaging technologies, but they are not as standard or cost effective and tend to have more false positives. You can rationalize that facing discomfort for this brief moment is better than enduring months or years of cancer pain from delayed diagnosis.

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Updated: Jun 22, 2023

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