Experiencing clogged ducts is a common occurrence in the first few weeks after childbirth, especially with the onset of milk flow. However, this symptom, actually referred to as “Breast Engorgement,” can also arise at other times, not just in postpartum individuals, and can be quite bothersome and painful. Learn how to address it!
What is breast engorgement?
Breast engorgement, also referred to as “breast soreness” and colloquially known as “breast conggestion,” is the swelling that occurs in the breasts due to the accumulation of fluid in the mammary tissues.
It is a common symptom during pregnancy, where the breasts become swollen and more sensitive to touch due to elevated hormone levels in the bloodstream. It also occurs in the early weeks after childbirth due to the milk letdown.
While more prevalent among lactants during the postpartum, engorgement can also occur in any other woman for reasons unrelated to breastfeeding, whether as a response to a food allergy or due to hormonal changes in the premenstrual phase.
The most common symptoms of breast engorgement include:
- Stretched and sensitive skin
- Painful and darker nipples
- Swollen nipples
- Swollen and touch-sensitive breasts
- General discomfort
Some women may also feel a small lump on the nipples, caused by the hardening of tissues in response to swelling.
Main causes of breast engorgement
- Increased hormone levels during pregnancy
- Inflammation caused by bacteria on the skin
- Blocked milk ducts
- Food allergies
- Immune system disorders
- Using tight bras
- Dysregulations of mammary glands
Treatment: What to do if you have breast engorgement?
If you are breastfeeding and experiencing breast engorgement, the best way to resolve the situation and provide immediate relief from discomfort and pain is to breastfeed. That’s because breast engorgement is essentially the accumulation of milk in your lactiferous ducts, meaning the milk is stagnant and accumulating in the vessels within the breast. This causes them to become hard and sensitive upon touch. The most effective way to resolve this is, indeed, to help unblock the ducts by pumping milk.
How to unclog engorged breasts
- Breastfeed every 2 to 3 hours or more if necessary;
- Breastfeed from the same side for as long as possible, offering the other breast only when the breast feels “soft” or “empty”;
- Apply a warm compress (up to 20 minutes) before breastfeeding and a cold compress immediately after breastfeeding if the breast is swollen or sensitive;
- Avoid wearing bras with underwire or tight tops. Opt for loose-fitting clothes and bras designed for breastfeeding;If the baby doesn’t feed until the end, use a breast pump to empty the breast after feeding, preventing the accumulation of milk in the ducts;
- Massage the breast before breastfeeding; this will help the milk flow more easily.
How stress can worsen breast engorgement
While breast engorgement may stem from a purely physical issue of lactiferous duct obstruction, breastfeeding is not solely a physical matter—it involves emotional and psychological aspects as well.
Hence, stress levels and other emotional factors can exacerbate the situation. Excessive stress can elevate your hormonal production, contributing to the stimulation of the breast tissue system and resulting in increased fluid retention — precisely what causes engorgement.
Therefore, don’t hesitate to seek help if you’re struggling to address the situation. A visit to a milk bank or an appointment with a lactation consultant can provide excellent support to deal with the situation in a guided and calm manner. Untreated engorgement may progress to mastitis, which is much more painful and challenging to resolve.
How to use frozen cabbage leaves to relieve breast engorgement
An age-old technique widely shared among doulas, midwives, and nurses is the use of frozen cabbage or kale leaves to alleviate the pain and discomfort caused by engorgement. While quicker to resolve than mastitis, for instance, the pain is no less bothersome or uncomfortable. If you’re experiencing pain and discomfort with engorged breasts, you can try this at home:
- Separate and wash cabbage or kale leaves individually to remove all impurities. This is especially important if you have nipple fissures or cracks, as contact with impurities can lead to infection!
- Next, dip the leaves in boiling water for about five minutes. This will help reduce the amount of pesticides and dirt and prepare the leaves for freezing;
- Place the leaves in a container and cover with cold water. Let them cool for about 10 minutes.
- Wrap the cabbage leaves tightly in a clean diaper or dishcloth to remove excess water;
- Place the leaves in a zip-top or freezer bag and leave them in the freezer overnight;
HOW TO USE
To use your frozen cabbage leaves, simply remove a frozen leaf, wrap it in a clean fabric (like a cloth diaper), and place it on the engorged or clogged breast. It can be secured inside the bra. It works as a cold compress to reduce swelling, and the coolness of the frozen leaf, along with the natural veins of cabbage and kale leaves, helps alleviate breast pain.
Let the leaves rest upon your breasts for 10 minutes, and discard them after using. Do not reuse leaves. That’s also why it’s worth freezing several at once.
⚠️ Engorgement can lead to mastitis!
It’s crucial to promptly address the symptoms of breast engorgement to prevent it from progressing to inflammation or an infection known as Mastitis.
Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast that primarily occurs in breastfeeding women. While engorgement doesn’t always evolve into mastitis, it is a common progression, as prolonged duct obstruction leads to inflammation.
If not treated promptly, mastitis can develop and cause other health issues, such as high fever, breast pain, and significantly increase the risk of infection. Therefore, it’s important to see a doctor promptly if you’re treating clogged breasts and the symptoms persist!