By Libby Borman
Women’s health physiotherapist at Life Ready Physio + Pilates Yokine
Learning to breastfeed is a very important skill if you’re a new mother, but there are times you may need a little extra support and encouragement to succeed. This is worth it because breastfeeding offers numerous health benefits for both mother and baby.
Of the problems that can occur in a woman’s breast, three conditions can benefit greatly from seeing a physiotherapist. These are blocked milk ducts, mastitis and cracked nipples.
Breastfeeding and expressed milk feeding women are prone to develop symptoms of these three conditions so being able to access immediate support, advice and treatment can provide significant breastfeeding pain relief. Just imagine the stress of trying to breastfeed every 2-to-3 hours when your nipples and/or breasts are painful!
What is mastitis?
Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast tissue that may involve a bacterial infection. Common signs include reddened area on the breast that can also feel hot, swollen, firm, lumpy and painful to touch. This can coincide with a decrease in milk supply from the affected side. The woman may have a fever and associated “flu-like” symptoms such as fatigue, sweats and generally feeling unwell.
What is a blocked milk duct?
A blocked milk duct can feel like a moderate-to-firm area in the breast. It can be painful and affect the milk flow from the affected side. Milk ducts always flow in the direction of the nipple, so a woman may be able to gently touch the breast tissue and be able to determine the borders of the blockage. The blockage can vary in size and will often get bigger in between feeds. Particularly stubborn blocked milk ducts can turn into mastitis and breast abscesses in rare cases.
What are cracked nipples?
During breastfeeding, the baby latches onto the breast and the aureole (the brownish area around the nipple), with the nipple going into bub’s mouth. Sometimes, the nipple receives trauma during attachment or detachment, and it can become grazed or actually crack. This can be extremely painful and requires special care and attention to heal whilst continuing to breastfeed.
How can a physiotherapist assist with mastitis, blocked milk ducts and cracked nipples?
A physiotherapist who is experienced with treating breasts will first take a history about the breastfeeding routine, and then assess the breast to determine if there is inflammation and/or signs of infection. The physiotherapist will then be able to recommend a treatment that will help:
- Therapeutic ultrasound can be very effective at resolving blockage in the milk duct and improving the milk flow. Ultrasound therapy can also settle the redness and inflammation in the breast tissue, often decreasing the pain
- Low-level laser therapy can be very effective at speeding up the healing in cracked or grazed nipples. It is a quick treatment and does not cause pain. Not all physiotherapy clinics have a laser machine, so you should contact your clinic to check before making an appointment
- The physiotherapist can provide advice regarding massage techniques, optimal drainage positions, signs of good attachment and alterations to feeding regimes. They may also suggest a referral to a lactation consultant or GP if required.
If you are experiencing a breast issue, contact our Life Ready women’s health physiotherapists to discuss how physiotherapy can help you. Please note that if you have a high fever and suspect you have mastitis, we recommend that you see your GP to discuss the need for antibiotics as part of your treatment.