Are Mammograms Painful? Navigating the Reality of Breast Screening Discomfort

According to the Singapore Cancer Registry, breast cancer is the leading cancer for females, with 1 in 13 women getting breast cancer in their lifetime. Luckily, technological advancement has made it possible to detect and treat breast cancer more effectively. Mammograms are one of the most effective methods in detecting early stages of breast cancer. By using minimal radioactivity to obtain X-ray images of the breasts, it enables radiologists to detect the presence of lumps that may not be physically felt in the early stages. When cancer is detected early, treatment can be provided early as well to remove the tumour before it spreads.

Are Mammograms Painful? Mammogram screenings are highly recommended once per year for women aged 40 to 49, and once every 2 years for those 50 and above. Despite its advantages, some women expressed concerns regarding the pain associated with mammograms.

Contrary to popular belief, mammograms are seldom painful. It involves the gentle compression of plastic plates on the breasts to spread the breast tissues to get a more accurate X-ray image. While this may bring some discomfort, it is generally brief and tolerable. Any pain during and/or after the examination may be attributed to various factors such as:

  • Menstrual cycle
  • Positioning of the breast during the screening
  • Physician’s expertise

However, these can be adjusted for a smooth and pain-free mammogram screening.

What should I expect during a mammogram screening?

When you arrive at the clinic, you will be asked some questions regarding your personal details and family history. Let the physician know if you have breast implants, are breastfeeding, or are pregnant. If you have prior mammograms, be sure to prepare copies of the diagnostic imaging records so that the physicians can compare them with the new ones. Before the exam, you will be required to remove your clothing from the waist up and change into a gown. Hence, it’s best to wear a two-piece outfit instead of a dress or jumpsuit for more convenience. Keep your hair tied to minimise interfering with the image. To avoid any interference with the X-ray images, avoid wearing jewellery or using any powder, lotion, or deodorant on the chest and armpits.

During the examination, you will stand in front of an X-ray machine. The physician will place your breasts, one at a time, on a plastic plate. Another plate from above will gently compress your breast. This is to spread the breast tissue so that it is not mistaken for lumps. You will hold this position for a few seconds for the image to be captured. This process will be repeated with different angles (top-to-bottom, and side-to-side) to obtain different projections.

The whole examination will only take 15 to 30 minutes, making it a quick and efficient procedure even for those with a busy schedule. The results will typically take a few days to weeks to process. If the results are abnormal, it does not automatically mean you have breast cancer. You will have to come back for a repeat mammogram, or additional tests such as an ultrasound, MRI, and/or biopsy for more confirmatory results.

Are mammograms painful?

The experience may bring some discomfort but is usually not unbearable. Even if one does experience more pain during the screening, it does not necessarily indicate a problem. Individual experiences may vary based on pain tolerance and menstrual changes. The breasts may feel more tender during your period or when you are breastfeeding, which may cause soreness during the compression. Women with smaller breasts may experience more discomfort as there are fewer breast tissues to be spread between the plates. Sometimes, the anxiety that comes with doing a medical examination may make the experience more uncomfortable.

Currently, improvements are made for mammogram screening to be more comfortable and personalised to individual preferences. Compression paddles are made with softer materials such as acrylic to minimise discomfort. Additionally, they come in different sizes to account for different breast sizes. Curved compression surfaces are in their early stages of development to accommodate the natural curve of the breast to reduce pinching and pressure.

Experienced physicians are well-trained to adjust their compression techniques to suit the breast size and stiffness. At Centre for Screening and Surgery, our specialist has decades of experience under his belt to provide a more pleasant experience for your needs. 

With that said, there are other factors that you can adjust before booking a mammogram screening to make it more comfortable.

What are some tips for a comfortable mammogram experience?

1. Avoid scheduling a mammogram during the week of your period.

The breasts usually feel most tender during your period, which may make the experience more uncomfortable. Instead, get a mammogram a week after your period ends. If you are breastfeeding, you could delay the mammogram screening. Be sure to inform your doctor or radiographer if there is a possibility that you are pregnant.

2. Avoid caffeine intake before your mammogram

Generally, there is no specific diet restriction prior to the examination. Nonetheless, while there have been mixed experimental results, some research has suggested that a large intake of caffeine, be it coffee, tea or caffeinated soda, could influence our hormone levels. Just like during your menstrual cycle, hormonal changes can lead to changes in breast tissue, causing the breasts to feel more tender and sensitive to pressure.

3. Communicate your needs with healthcare providers

There is nothing embarrassing about expressing your concerns. Remember that the physicians are there to help you, and that includes making your experience as comfortable as possible. Should you feel any discomfort or anxiety at any point during the examination, voice it out and the physician can slow things down or try different positioning that would suit your preferences.

4. Painkillers

If you are worried about the pain, take some over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin 45-60 minutes before the appointment.

5. Wear a comfortable bra

Opt for a sports bra or cotton bra instead of an underwired bra. Some women may feel soreness in their breasts after the examination, and having a bra that does not dig into their skin would assuage this discomfort. In the same vein, wear comfortable, two-piece clothes that will be easy to remove before the examination.

Mammograms Screening

Safeguard Your Health Today

Remember: the benefits of detecting cancer early outweigh the temporary discomfort of a mammogram screening. The fear of pain or discomfort should not deter you from getting a mammogram screening.

At Centre for Screening and Surgery, we prioritise delivering quality and comfortable early cancer screening and treatment using minimally invasive procedures.

If you are looking to do breast screening or if you detect a lump in your breast, and need to schedule a check-up immediately, you may call us to book a mammogram appointment with us today.

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