Sensitive Breasts and Nipples – Causes, Signs and Symptoms

The breasts are among the more sensitive parts of the body, particularly the nipples. It is one of the erogenous zones that heighten desire when stimulated. However, breast sensitivity does not always refer to this type of feeling. Sometimes the sensitivity can be annoying in that it is associated with discomfort, mild pain and/or tenderness. It may not always be due to a breast disease – physiological changes in the body like hormone fluctuations during menstruation and pregnancy may lead to breast sensitivity.

Reasons for Increased Breast Sensitivity

The skin on the breasts have a similar tactile response to skin elsewhere on the body. It can sense pressure and temperature, and elicit ithcing and pain with the appropriate stimulus. Most of the nerve supply to the breasts are associated with dermatomes – areas of skin innervated by spinal nerves. When these nerves or the skin along the corresponding dermatome is irritated then breast sensitivity may be one of the symptoms.

However, sensitivity does not depend as much on the nerves supplying the area as compared to the number of receptors in a particular area. There are different types of receptors for different sensations, like nociceptors for pain. A higher concentration of skin receptors occur at several parts of the body. Most of these areas are also considered to be the erogenous zones. Due to this concentration of receptors, an area is considered to be more or less sensitive.

There are also other factors that play a role in breast sensitivity, like the hormone levels in the body. Since breast tissue is sensitive to hormones it can swell and become engorged, which in turn may affect its sensitivity. When talking about breast sensitivity, most people mean that there breasts become more responsive to physical stimuli. In other words, even mild stimuli elicits a heightened response.

Breast self-examination

Cyclic Breast Pain

Breast pain is not uncommon for many females. It often occurs at specific points in the month and is linked to the menstrual cycle. Sensitivity that comes and goes in this manner, without there being any underlying breast disease, is referred to as cyclic breast pain. Not every woman will suffer with cyclic breast pain. Some women will have cyclic breast pain for a few consecutive months and then it resolves on its own. For others, cyclic breast pain is a constant problem in every menstrual cycle.

Cyclic breast pain should not be confused with the alterations in breast sensitivity that typically occurs a little while before the periods (premenstrual) and resolves after the periods. Sometimes it is just tenderness, a discomfort or increased sensitivity that is neither tender not painful. This is considered somewhat normal as the rise in certain hormones makes the breast swell and become more sensitive. It is typically short-lived.

Causes of Breast Sensitivity

As with most symptoms, the causes of breast sensitivity can be classified as physiological, pathological or iatrogenic. Physiological means symptoms that are not due to any disease. Rather it is due to changes in physiology that may occur in certain times in life. Pathological refers to the symptoms that arise due to some disease. Iatrogenic are those symptoms or conditions that arise with taking a pharmaceutical drug.

Physiological Causes

The expected hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy are two physiological causes where breast sensitivity may increase. It may also continue after childbirth, as the mother’s breast is producing milk and occasionally becomes engorged. These instances are not considered abnormal. Breast sensitivity is not unexpected, will not lead to any damage to the breast tissue and will eventually resolve. Before and during menopause, women may also experience some changes in breast sensitivity but it is more likely with hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Iatrogenic Causes

Hormone medication like oral contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause are the more likely drugs to cause breast sensitivity. It does not affect every woman who uses these drugs. It occurs for the same reasons as the physiological causes of breast sensitivity – the fluctuation in hormone levels. Another drug that may cause breast tenderness is antidepressants. It only occurs in some users. Other medication cannot be ruled out, as individual reaction may lead to breast sensitivity. Stopping the medication will eventually resolve the problem.

Pathological Causes

There are number of breast diseases that can also present with sensitivity, although it is more often tenderness or breast pain (mastalgia).

  • Abscess/cyst: Where pus (abscess) or other fluid (cyst) collects within the breast tissue.
  • Fibrocystic breast disease: Where there are changes within the breast tissue, leading to the formation of cysts, overgrowth of certain cells and even scar tissue.
  • Implants: Some women may experience sensitivity after a breast implant procedure. Rupture of the implants or excessive enlargement could also possibly contribute to sensitivity.
  • Trauma: Injury to the breasts can occur for a number of reasons – blow to the chest, surgery, pressure by sleeping on the chest or even with tight bras and clothing.
  • Tumors: Both benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumors of the breast could contribute to breast sensitivity but it is less common than most of the other causes discussed. If it does occur in breast cancer then it is usually a late symptom.
  • Mastitis: Infection of the breast most often seen during breastfeeding (lactation mastitis) but can also occur in women who are not breastfeeding (non-lactational mastitis).
  • Poor support: Very large breasts that are not supported with properly fitting bras may become sensitive as the skin stretches.

These are some of the breast-specific pathological causes of heightened sensitivity, tenderness or pain. Other causes may involve the chest wall and not only the breasts, such as:

  • Costochondritis
  • Shingles
  • Fractured rib
  • Fibromyalgia

Signs and Symptoms

Breast sensitivity on its own may not be a symptom to be concerned about. However, medical attention should be sought if it is persisting for long periods without abating, tenderness and pain arise, or if one or more of the following signs and symptoms are also present:

  • Breast discharge/secretion either from the nipple or through a lesion on the breast.
  • Breast lumps that are large, growing and/or tender.
  • Skin rash on the breast, with or without itching.
  • Redness of the skin on the breast.
  • Severe breast swelling, one-sided (unilateral) or on both sides (bilateral).
  • Deformity of the nipples.

These other signs and symptoms are more likely to be indicative of a pathological cause of breast sensitivity. However, it is important to remember that sometimes there are no symptoms even in the most serious of breast conditions.