Conditions such as mastitis and blocked milk ducts, which can be grouped under the term “inflammations of the breast,” are common in mothers who are breastfeeding. In fact, up to 20% of nursing mothers will experience at least one episode, most often during the first weeks of baby’s life. They are generally painful conditions that temporarily complicate breastfeeding and, sadly, can put its continuation at risk.

Increasingly, the medical community is recognizing that physical therapy ultrasounds can help. However, the effective treatment of mastitis through physical therapy goes far beyond this one technique!

Let’s take a closer look

Contrary to popular belief, blocked ducts and mastitis usually aren’t caused by an obstruction inside the duct, such as a clump of fat or dried milk. They are more frequently due to compression outside the duct, usually the swelling of the surrounding tissues. In fact, when there is milk stasis in the mammary glands, they distend. There are several reasons why milk may stagnate (or stay put) in the mammary glands: baby may skip a feeding, part of the mother’s breast may be compressed by a too-tight bra, baby may have trouble sucking or may change her way of latching on (for example, during teething), etc.

Mammary gland cell walls are very thin and surrounded by blood vessels. When they distend, certain larger molecules enter the cells (sodium, mediators, etc.). This causes a severe inflammatory reaction. The inflammation in turn causes the tissue around the mammary gland to swell. This compresses the milk ducts in the same way that a shoe compresses a swollen ankle after a sprain. It becomes even more difficult for the milk, already stagnating in the mammary gland, to make its way out through the milk ducts, which are compressed by the edema of the surrounding tissue. The inflammatory phenomenon then continues unabated until the milk drains or the situation worsens, resulting in an infection or abscess. Some popular home remedies, like using vibration or vigorous massage to dislodge the “clot,” can make the condition even worse!

In physical therapy, several safe and effective methods are used to reduce swelling and facilitate breast drainage: therapeutic breast massage, manual expression, ultrasounds, etc. A physical therapist trained to assist breastfeeding mothers will also evaluate the breastfeeding situation and the mother-baby team to help eliminate any mechanical causes of blockages (for example, the breastfeeding position, baby’s ability to nurse properly, etc.). An acute problem can usually be resolved in two sessions, but it is imperative that the client be seen quickly. Physical therapists can also work in collaboration with other health care providers, contributing their knowledge of pain management and skin integrity maintenance in more complex cases of persistent breast pain or recalcitrant wounds.

In short, if you’re suffering from mastitis or a blocked duct, talk to us! Our physical therapists are here to help you, quickly and efficiently.