An Overview of Fibrocystic Breast Disease

It's not cancer, but can be painful

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Fibrocystic breasts occur when hormonal changes make breast tissue take on a lumpy or rope-like in texture. They can be painful, but are completely harmless.

Once called fibrocystic breast disease, the term has largely fallen out of favor because "disease" wrongly implies something is wrong with the breasts. Fibrocystic breasts, or fibrocystic breast changes, is a benign condition that's neither a symptom of nor a risk factor for breast cancer.

This article looks at the symptoms and causes of what was once called fibrocystic breast disease. It also discusses how fibrocystic breasts are evaluated and treated, and how you can cope with these changes.

Symptoms of Fibrocystic Breasts
Verywell / Gary Ferster 

Symptoms of Fibrocystic Breasts

The primary symptom of fibrocystic breast tissue is its lumpy, rope-like texture.

If you were to look at fibrocystic tissue under a microscope, you would likely see several components that contribute to this, including:

  • Round or oval-shape cysts filled with fluid
  • Fibrous tissue that resembles scar tissue (fibrosis)
  • Hyperplasia (overgrowth) of cells lining the milk ducts and milk-producing lobules of the breast
  • Enlarged breast lobules (adenosis

Typically, lumps aren't attached to surrounding tissue but will move slightly when manipulated. 

Many people with fibrocystic breasts have no symptoms beyond that. However, those who experience some often find them unpleasant. The most common symptoms of fibrocystic breasts are:

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Generalized pain

In some cases, fibrocystic breasts put out a greenish or dark brown nipple discharge that's free of blood and may leak without pressure or squeezing. There also can be pain in the armpit.

Frequently, fibrocystic breast symptoms worsen just before your menstrual period and lessen near the end of the cycle. The actual size of individual lumps may fluctuate with the menstrual cycle as well.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While it should be reassuring to know that not all changes to your breast are worrisome, if you notice thickened areas or changes in texture, it's still a good idea to see your healthcare provider to confirm your suspicion that it's just fibrocystic breast changes.

All breast lumps must be investigated to rule out breast cancer and/or to begin immediate treatment if breast cancer is diagnosed.

Bloody nipple discharge or discharge that occurs on just one side or is associated with a lump or skin changes can be a sign of breast cancer. See a healthcare provider immediately if you encounter this symptom.

Breast Self-Awareness

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that you should be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to your healthcare provider right away. (You're most likely to notice changes during activities like bathing or dressing.)

This is called breast self-awareness and is preferred over breast self-exams (BSEs) by the ACS, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, among other bodies, based on lack of evidence that regular BSEs are beneficial.

What Causes Fibrocystic Breast Changes?

What spurs breast tissue to develop the lumpy, tender, swollen areas that are characteristic of fibrocystic changes isn't fully understood.

Experts agree, though, that reproductive hormones are closely involved. Estrogen is particularly likely to play a part. 

If female hormones caused you to develop breasts, you have about a 50% chance of experiencing fibrocystic breast changes at some point in your life.

Fibrocystic breasts are most common between the ages of 20 and 50 or so—in other words, while you still have periods. However, if you're postmenopausal, you may have fibrocystic breast changes due to hormone therapy.

Diagnosing Fibrocystic Breast Disease

Whether you practice breast self-awareness, do BSEs, or both, you may find it difficult to distinguish fibrocystic changes from potential tumors.

While the majority of breast lumps aren't cancerous, you should still get examined and imaging done to confirm this. In some cases, more invasive testing is needed.

Mammography and Ultrasound

It's sometimes difficult for a regular mammogram to differentiate between fibrocystic tissue and a potentially cancerous lump, so an ultrasound is often the preferred diagnostic test.

If you have dense breasts, you may be urged to have both tests regularly. (Dense breasts are common early in life, as breasts tend to become fattier with age.) Density can only be determined by mammography, not by the look and feel of breasts.


When screening and/or testing reveal that a lump may be a fluid-filled cyst, sometimes a healthcare provider will choose to do a fine-needle aspiration. With this, a thin, hollow needle is used to extract the fluid so that it can be examined in a lab.

If tests are inconclusive—and your healthcare provider still can't rule out cancer—then a biopsy of the actual tissue may be necessary.

Most people with fibrocystic breasts don't have abnormal breast cells when a biopsy is performed.


If your breasts aren't bothering you, there is no need to treat fibrocystic breasts. If you do experience pain, you have several treatment and management options to consider.

Try a Different Bra

You may get relief from extremely painful breasts by wearing a bra that provides more support. Being fitted for a bra by a specialist is an ideal way to find one that's the right size and shape for you.

If the band is too tight or the cup is too small, the fabric, underwire, or other structural elements of the bra may be putting unnecessary pressure on your breasts.

If you play a sport or spend a lot of time working out, you may want to invest in a good sports bra as well. Consider wearing one to bed during periods, when your breasts are likely to be extra sensitive.

Apply Heat

Heat may help alleviate pain from pressure and swelling. Use a regular heating pad or make your own using a tube sock and rice.

A cold compress or gentle massage may help as well.

Change Your Diet

Although there's little research supporting a link between diet and fibrocystic breasts, anecdotal reports hint that certain changes may help relieve symptoms in some people. Together, they represent a nutritionally smart approach to eating, so they may improve your general health.

First, cut down on:

  • Caffeine from coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate
  • Added sugar
  • Sodium
  • Fat

Then, include more:

  • Fiber (30 grams a day is recommended)
  • Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains


In extreme cases, cysts or lumps that cause pain can be removed. Options include:

  • Fine-needle aspiration: A hair-thin needle is inserted through the breast and into the cyst to drain fluid. This causes the cyst to collapse, which should relieve pain; it can also confirm the lump isn't a tumor.
  • Surgical excision: A cyst that's persistent (won't collapse even after being aspirated several times) may need to be surgically removed.


A variety of medications are used to ease symptoms of fibrocystic breast disease.


Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or other pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) may help ease soreness caused by fibrocystic breast changes.

Diclofenac, which has the same ingredient as an oral NSAID, is also available in a topical form. Ask your healthcare provider what type and dose might work best for you. Your healthcare provider may prescribe prescription versions of these or related medications, as well. 

Birth Control Pills

Birth control pills are sometimes prescribed for pain related to fibrocystic breast changes, as they may help regulate levels of hormones linked to them.

Decreasing the dose of estrogen in a birth control pill can be effective as well.


A drug called tamoxifen and androgens (male hormones) also may be used, but because these drugs can have severe side effects, they are typically only recommended if symptoms are severe and not relieved by other treatments.

Progesterone Cream

Applying 15 to 20 milligrams of progesterone cream per day, starting with ovulation and going until a day or two before your period, sometimes helps breast tissue return to normal in three to four months. 

Once you've achieved symptom relief, you can gradually taper your dose until you find the lowest amount that's effective. Ask your healthcare provider about a prescription if you don't already have one.

Decrease Estrogen Intake

If you're postmenopausal and taking estrogen, talk to your healthcare provider about reducing your dose or stopping hormone therapy altogether.

It also may help to decrease sources of estrogen from your diet, such as commercially-raised meats, which sometimes contain excessive amounts of hormones.


Evening primrose oil contains an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid that may make breast tissues less sensitive to hormonal changes. You can find it in drugstores and health food stores, usually in capsule form. It has been studied in many trials, though hasn't been shown to be more effective than a placebo.

Research also suggests fish oil, another source of essential fatty acids, may also help reduce pain associated with fibrocystic breasts changes, even though it wasn't more than a placebo. Other vitamin suggestions include vitamin B6 or a B-complex, and magnesium.

Coping With Fibrocystic Breasts

If your healthcare provider appears to be dismissing your complaints, see someone else if possible. With all the options available, you shouldn't have to endure chronic pain without treatment.

If you're having trouble dealing with it, and especially if you could be depressed, talk to your healthcare provider. You may benefit from therapy and/or antidepressant medications.

Lastly, dedicating time to some of the self-care measures above can go a long way in making you feel that you're doing all you can to ease your discomfort.


Fibrocystic breasts have a lumpy, rope-like texture. They're usually asymptomatic, but some people have swelling, tenderness, breast pain, or nipple discharge. Hormones are believed to play a causal role, but causes aren't fully understood.

Fibrocystic breast disease is now called fibrocystic breast changes or fibrocystic breasts because the changes are harmless and not a "disease."

Simple home remedies and possibly medication are usually enough to ease any related discomfort. It's always best to have breast changes evaluated to make sure you are indeed dealing with fibrocystic breasts.

A Word From Verywell

Finding any lump or abnormality in your breast can make you worry about breast cancer. Try not to let your mind race.

Get it checked out, but do your best to focus on the fact that cancer is far less likely than something like fibrocystic changes. And if it does turn out to be cancer, remember that early diagnosis leads to better outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a fibroadenoma?

    Fibroadenomas are benign breast lumps made of fibrous and glandular tissue. They can cause pain. A single one doesn't increase your risk of breast cancer, unless it's complex. Having more than one also indicates a higher risk.

  • What's the difference between a fibroadenoma and fibrocystic breast changes?

    Fibrocystic breast changes typically make both breasts feel lumpy. These changes vary throughout the menstrual cycle. Fibroadenomas are single masses that persist over time.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Fibrosis and Simple Cysts in the Breast. Revised September 10, 2019.

  2. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Recommendations for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer.

  3. American Cancer Society. Frequently Asked Questions About the American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer Screening Guideline. Revised January 24, 2019.

  4. American Cancer Society. What Is Breast Cancer? Revised September 18, 2019.

  5. Horner NK, Lampe JW. Potential mechanisms of diet therapy for fibrocystic breast conditions show inadequate evidence of effectiveness. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000 Nov;100(11):1368-80. doi: 10.1016/S0002-8223(00)00383-7. PMID: 11103660.

  6. Blommers J, De lange-de klerk ES, Kuik DJ, Bezemer PD, Meijer S. Evening primrose oil and fish oil for severe chronic mastalgia: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2002;187(5):1389-94. doi:10.1067/mob.2002.127377a

  7. American Cancer Society. Fibroadenomas of the Breast. Revised September 10, 2019.

Additional Reading

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.