What are Mammograms?
A mammogram is a radiological test that is done – usually for women – to detect early breast cancer. During the test, the woman stands up against the machine, and her breast is flattened between two plates. For some women, this isn’t a problem at all. For others, it can be quite painful. In fact, some women think that the pain of a mammogram is so great that they avoid getting one altogether, which could mean an early death. Mammograms should not be feared, and they should not be overly painful.
Hopefully, if you have breast cancer, the mammogram will pick it up early enough to increase your chances of survival. While this is a fairly basic definition of a mammogram, you might be interested in fully knowing what mammograms are.
A Mammogram is an X-Ray
When a mammogram is done, a very low dose of radiation is used to create the image that is necessary for diagnostic purposes. The procedure is non-invasive, and an image is being made of the interior of the breasts. The usual form of a mammogram is an x-ray, but advances in technology have given us two more types of mammograms, which include computer aided detection mammograms and digital mammography.
With digital mammography, the x-ray image is converted into electrical signals, and these signals produce images of the breasts, with the images being displayed on a computer. The image is then printed out on special paper, which is much like the film used for x-rays. In computer-aided detection, or CAD, the image is digitized. The digital image can come from an old fashioned x-ray, or from digital mammography. Software is then used to find abnormalities in the image, which could identify cancer.
Why are Mammograms Done?
There are essentially two reasons why a mammogram is done. The first is to detect, diagnose, and treat early breast cancer – usually in women. This is a test that is suggested by your doctor on an annual or semi-annual basis after you have reached a certain age. Age isn’t the only factor in determining how often you should have a mammogram, however. Your family history, your health condition, and whether or not you have ever had any type of cancer in the past are also factors. Mammograms are usually recommended for women who are over the age of 40.
The second reason why a mammogram may be done is strictly for diagnostic purposes – if other problems have been found. For example, if you or your doctor has found a lump in your breast, a mammogram will be done almost immediately to see what the lump is. Unfortunately, images don’t always tell us everything that we need to know, and a biopsy may be needed as well. Your doctor may also order a mammogram if you have blood work that came back abnormal, or if he simply suspects that you might have breast cancer for other reasons, such as an unusual discharge from the nipples.
Are You Ready for Your Mammogram?
In most cases, your health insurance will pay for a mammogram. In some cases, they will only pay for a portion of the mammogram, depending on the policy that you have. Most insurers will require you to get a referral from your family doctor for a mammogram. Your doctors office should set up the appointment for you, and let you know when and where the mammogram will be done.
Your doctor will need to know when you regular period is, because mammograms are typically not scheduled the week before your period. Experts suggest that the best time to have a mammogram done is the week after your period. If there is a possibility that you may be pregnant, your doctor needs to know this, and the technician who does the mammogram also needs to be informed of this. Make sure that you tell them, even if you are not sure that you are pregnant.
On the day of your mammogram, shower as usual, but do not apply lotion, powder, or deodorant under your arms. You may want to take some ibuprofen about an hour before the examination as well. Wear a comfortable bra, as your breasts may be tender or sore after the examination.
When you arrive for your appointment, there may or may not be paperwork for you to fill out. You will need to present your insurance card, and possibly your picture identification as well.
When the technician is ready for you, you will be directed to a room, where you will remove your shirt and bra. You may be given a hospital gown to wear. You will then be taken to the machine, and the technician will actually position your breasts in the machine, one at a time, and a plate will come down on top of the breast and squeeze it until it is flat enough for a clear image. For some women, this is uncomfortable. If it is extremely painful, you need to let the technician know this.
Typically, women with larger breasts do not feel any pain, and very little discomfort. However, women with smaller breasts report that there is pain involved with a mammogram. This is because enough of the breast has to be placed and flattened between the two plates, causing considerable discomfort for women who have smaller breasts, and for men who need a mammogram.
Does a Mammogram Really Hurt?
If you have large breasts, the mammogram will not hurt, unless you are overly sensitive. If you have small breasts, however, there can be pain, and your breasts may be sore for a day or two following the mammogram. You may even find that your breasts have been bruised. Bruising does happen, but it isn’t common, and this greatly depends on the size of your breasts, and the skill of the technician.
During the mammogram, you may be uncomfortable, but you should not experience true pain. If you are experiencing true pain – and not just discomfort – you should notify the technician who is doing the test. The technician may be able to adjust you to cause less pain, or decrease the pressure of the plates a bit.
It is also important to realize that the skill of the technician will also determine whether the mammogram will hurt, or if you will experience pain or tenderness after the test is over. When you schedule your mammogram, find out if the technician specializes in mammograms. If he or she does not, schedule your appointment at a different facility if possible.
Lessen the Pain of a Mammogram
Start by making sure that the technician knows what he or she is doing. You may need to call several different facilities to find a technician who specializes in mammograms. You may even need to travel to a different city or town. Ask your doctor for a referral, and let him or her know that you want a skilled technician. When the technician is skilled, the discomfort is considerably less, or even non-existent, and you may be pleasantly surprised as to how painless a mammogram can actually be – and more willing to get mammograms in the future.
You can also take ibuprofen right before the mammogram is done. This will help to minimize any pain that you may feel during the procedure, and may help you to feel less soreness after the procedure as well. Talk to your doctor about the pain of a mammogram before the procedure is done. Most physicians recommend over-the-counter ibuprofen about an hour before the procedure. Even though the directions on the medication recommend two of the tablets, which are 200mg each, the actual full adult dosage of ibuprofen is 800mg, up to three times per day, but you do need to check with your doctor first.
It is important that you check with your doctor before doing anything to lessen the pain or discomfort of a mammogram before it occurs, because some things that you do could have a poor effect on the images that are produced, which may mean that you are going for another mammogram long before you planned to.
Treating Pain after a Mammogram
If your breasts are sore or tender after a mammogram, there are several things that you can do to alleviate the discomfort. Wear a comfortable bra that doesn’t put too much pressure on the breasts. Also continue to take ibuprofen, following the directions on the package, for a few days if necessary. You might also use a lidocaine gel directly on the breasts. If you are breastfeeding you will need to check with your doctor first. You can also apply heat to your breasts for twenty minutes, followed by ice for twenty minutes, as this will help to decrease any swelling, if swelling exists.
Note that in most cases, no pain reliever is necessary at all, and any discomfort you may have experienced goes away within a few minutes of the completion of the mammogram. If the mammogram has taken a great deal of time, where several different images were needed, however, there could be a need for mild, over-the-counter pain relievers for a short period of time, but no more than a day or two.
If the pain of the mammogram continues for more than a week after the procedure is done, you need to contact your doctor to find out what is going on. The procedure could have caused damage to the tissue, or even to the nerves. The damage may or may not be reversible. This is why it is so important to use only a skilled technician, and preferably one who specializes in mammography.