What is nipple vasospasm?
Vasospasm is what happens when the blood vessels supplying the nipple go into spasm and reduce the blood flow to the nipple. This affects the flow of milk from the nipple.
It is common to feel intense pain if this happens, particularly if the weather is cold. While any of the body's blood vessels can be affected by vasospasm, it can be a particularly painful condition for breastfeeding mothers.
Nipple vasospasm can occur:
- In response to nipple trauma if the baby is not well attached to the breast.
- It can also happen due to Raynaud’s phenomenon, more commonly called ‘Raynauds’ (see below). This is when vasospasm occurs randomly and is unrelated to breastfeeds.
Some women are more likely to have nipple vasospasm, particularly those who tend to have cold fingers and feet and who may already believe they have poor circulation. Sometimes women first experience nipple vasospasm during their pregnancy.
Women who are below average weight for their height are also at greater risk. Cigarette smoking can make vasospasm worse because nicotine constricts the blood vessels.
What does vasospasm with breastfeeding feel like?
Women with vasospasm commonly describe it as an intense, throbbing, burning type of pain in their nipples. When the blood vessels in the nipples are affected by vasospasm, pain can be felt before, during or after breastfeeds. The pain can last for a few seconds or longer. Some women experience vasospasm when they ‘let down’ or their milk ejection reflex has been activated.
What does vasospasm look like?
The nipple or the tip of the nipple can appear white, or blanched during vasospasm. The colour of the nipple can also change as the blood returns to the vessels and tissues. This can mean there’s a change from white to purple, blue or red as the nipples return to their normal colour.
What is Raynaud’s phenomenon?
Raynaud’s phenomenon, more commonly called ‘Raynauds’ occurs when vasospasm happens randomly and is unrelated to breastfeeds. Vasospasm symptoms can also occur in the fingers and toes in response to cold.
Raynauds is caused by a temporary interruption to normal blood flow in the small blood vessels in the extremities. This is why the fingers and toes, nose, lips and ears are often the most vulnerable body parts being affected.
If you have Raynauds when you are pregnant, you may also experience nipple vasospasm when you are breastfeeding.
How do I know if I have vasospasm?
Breastfeeding should not be painful or uncomfortable. It is common in the early days of breastfeeding for mothers to experience some nipple sensitivity as their body adjusts tp feeding. Women with nipple vasospasm may continue to experience pain when breastfeeding, even when their baby is attached properly and sucking well.
How can vasospasm be treated or managed?
You can manage the effects of nipple vasospasm by reducing your exposure to the air or cold. This will help your blood vessels to stay dilated and avoid becoming restricted. You can make your own decisions about comfort when deciding how many layers of clothing you need to wear. Ideally, you should use light layers which you can take off easily if you feel you’re overheating.
There are other strategies you can try too — for example:
- Apply warmth with a compress or heat pack straight after breastfeeding.
- Use breast warmers made from a reflective material since this can be soothing. Check with your pharmacist to see the options that are available.
- Try massaging olive oil onto your nipples after feeding but without exposing your breast to cold air.
- Try avoiding caffeine — some women report that avoiding this is helpful.
- Avoid exposing your nipples to cold air and wear more layers of clothing to avoid getting cold.
You should also check to make sure your baby is well attached when they are breastfeeding, and that you don’t have any nipple trauma or thrush.
Do supplements help for nipple vasospasm?
Some women find that taking supplements is very helpful in alleviating the symptoms of vasospasm. Before taking any medication or supplements, however, it’s important you speak with a healthcare professional or your pharmacist.
- Fish oil capsules or evening primrose oil (gamma linoleic) may help to improve blood vessel relaxation.
- Magnesium tablets can help to relax the blood vessels.
- Prescription medication may be beneficial — speak with your doctor for more information.
Where can I go for help and advice?
For more help with nipple vasospasm and breastfeeding, speak with:
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Last reviewed: July 2021