Vasospasm occurs when blood vessels tighten, resulting in impaired blood flow to extremities of the body, often affecting the fingers and toes.
For breastfeeding mothers vasospasm can also occur in the nipples. Onset of nipple vasospasm typically occurs within the first month of breastfeeding. Nipple vasospasm can even occur occasionally throughout pregnancy.
In some cases, it can start later, especially when triggered by cold weather.
Nipple vasospasm is more common in colder countries. You are most at risk of developing this condition if there is a family history of Raynaud’s phenomenon, or if you have poor circulation, you are underweight, or have an underlying medical condition or disease.
Symptoms of nipple vasospasm
The symptoms of nipple vasospasm can occur on one or both breasts.
Women describe the symptoms of nipple vasospasm as:
- Intense nipple pain
- Throbbing, burning, or stinging pain in the nipple
- Sudden whitening of the nipple (nipple blanching)
- Changes in the colour of the nipple when blood flow returns (red or blue).
The symptoms might last just a few seconds, several minutes or even longer. For some women, the pain from nipple vasospasm is so severe that they wean from breastfeeding earlier than planned.
Intense nipple pain – could it be vasospasm?
Sometime, vasospasm occurs as a response to nipple damage. This can be caused by a poor latch. In this instance, the symptoms of vasospasm will appear after breastfeeding.
In this case, you should seek help from a lactation consultant to determine whether the cause of the problem is your baby compressing the nipple while breastfeeding. If nipple vasospasm has been caused by trauma, the symptoms should disappear when the nipple has healed.
If the vasospasm occurs randomly, such as before breastfeeding or between feeds, it is more likely to be a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon. Raynaud’s phenomenon is also referred to as Raynaud’s syndrome or Raynaud’s disease. In this condition, symptoms can also be felt in the toes, fingers and other body parts, as a reaction to sudden temperature changes. Raynaud’s phenomenon is not caused by breastfeeding, but nipple vasospasm might occur as part of the condition.
Raynaud’s can sometimes be associated with other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
You can read more about Raynaud’s phenomenon in BellyBelly’s article Raynaud’s Disease And Syndrome | What You Need To Know.
Treatment for nipple vasospasm
The good news is that you might be able to manage nipple vasospasm at home, by trying the following remedies:
- Apply warmth to the nipple directly after breastfeeding; a warm compress or breast warmers (breast pads containing reflective material) can be used to apply gentle warmth
- Keep nipples warm at other times; avoid exposing nipples to cold air
- Wear an extra layer of clothing on a cold day
- Use wool breast pads, to keep nipples warmer
- Avoid sudden temperature changes
- Warm the bathroom before undressing for a shower
- Avoid caffeine
- Avoid nicotine
- Exercise regularly to promote good blood flow
- Manage stress or anxiety.
You might find that taking the following supplements can reduce the severity of attacks:
- Magnesium tablets, to relax the blood vessels
- Fish oil capsules or evening primrose oil, to improve blood vessel relaxation
- Vitamin B6; this is most suitable as a treatment option for women with babies over three months. Vitamin B6 can affect breast milk supply, so if your baby is aged under three months, it is important to ask a health professional for advice.
If nipple vasospasm is causing severe pain or if you are unable to manage sore nipples effectively from home, speak to a lactation consultant or other health professional.
There might be prescription medication available to treat the condition. Nifedipine, a drug used for high blood pressure, and which works by relaxing the blood vessels, has shown promising results in the treatment of women with nipple vasospasm.
It’s possible for Raynaud’s phenomenon to reoccur in later pregnancies, so be prepared for this.
Other causes of nipple pain for breastfeeding mothers
There are other possible causes of nipple pain or breast pain associated with breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding should be pain-free. If you experience pain when your baby attaches to the breast, or if you have a misshapen nipple after breastfeeding or nipple trauma from your baby clamping the nipple, or if you experience any other breastfeeding-related pain, seek help from a health professional, such as a lactation consultant.
As well as taking a medical history of you and your baby, a lactation consultant will assess your baby’s mouth for tongue tie and examine you both for signs of nipple thrush, which can have similar symptoms to nipple vasospasm.
This is important to diagnose and treat the exact cause of your nipple pain or breast pain and to rule out any other medical conditions.
You can read about other causes of breastfeeding related pain in BellyBelly’s article When Breastfeeding Hurts – 10 Causes Of Painful Breastfeeding.