Breast screening may be one of life’s necessary evils, but there are ways to ease the discomfort factor. Here's why screenings are so uncomfortable and how to minimise the pain. 

Q: Why does breast screening hurt?

Discomfort is the price you pay for accurate results – your breast needs to be held tightly and squeezed between the mammogram’s two ‘paddles’ so that the tissue is evened out and any abnormalities show up clearly in the X-ray imaging. “The specialist has to pull you into a position where all the breast tissue is on the mammogram to see if there’s a tiny cancer lurking,” explains Perth-based radiologist

Dr Sue Ulreich. Positioning smaller breasts can be more painful, as there’s less tissue to manoeuvre, and women with breast cysts – common but harmless – are also likely to feel more twinges.

Q: Can you lessen the discomfort?

Taking an anti-inflammatory painkiller, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, an hour beforehand can help. Dr Ulreich favours a calm approach. “If you’re relaxed, it’s much easier to place you with your arm and shoulder in a comfortable position and make it a better experience,” she says. If you suffer from breast tenderness – typically before or during your period – schedule your screening with this in mind.

Q: What are dense breasts?

Breasts tend to be denser in younger women, who have more glandular and supportive tissue, while the proportion of fat increases with age, making them less dense. The problem with high breast density is abnormalities may not show up on a mammogram, even when it’s possible to feel a lump. So, your GP may recommend an ultrasound, rather than an X-ray, especially if you have a family history of cancer. “There’s a greater risk of cancer when it’s hard to see any lumps, so an ultrasound is useful, as the radiologist can screen a particular spot to identify an early-stage tumour,” says Dr Ulreich. An MRI is a further option.

Read more about breast screenings and breast cancer from the editors of Prevention, here. 

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