Facts you should know about breasts
Picture of the anatomy of the breast
- The breasts are medically known as the mammary glands.
- The mammary glands are made up of lobules, milk-producing glandular structures, and a system of ducts that transport milk to the nipple.
- Lymphatic vessels in the breast drain excess fluid.
- Breast growth begins at puberty in humans, in contrast to other types of primates in which breasts enlarge only during lactation.
- Breast tissue develops in the fetus along the so-called "milk lines," extending from the armpit to the groin.
What are the breasts (mammary glands)?
The breasts, located on the front of the chest, are medically known as the mammary glands. The term "breast" is sometimes used to refer to the area at the front of the chest.
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Ms. G. is a 40-year-old woman with two small
children. Like most women, she is concerned about her chances of developing
breast cancer. She asks her doctor about her risks.
Although breast cancer is a worry for most women, Ms. G. is especially worried because of a
family history of breast cancer. Her mother and sister had breast cancers that were diagnosed
at young ages.
What are the anatomical features of the breast?
The mammary gland is made up of lobules -- glandular structures that produce milk in females when stimulated to do so. The lobules drain into a system of ducts, connecting channels that transport the milk to the nipple. Between the glandular tissue and ducts, the breast contains fat tissue and connective tissue.
Both males and females have breasts. The structure of the male breast is nearly identical to that of the female breast, except that the male breast tissue lacks the specialized lobules, as there is no physiologic need for milk production by the male breast. Abnormal enlargement of the male breasts is medically known as gynecomastia.
The breast does not contain muscles. Breast tissue is located on top of the muscles of the chest wall. Blood vessels and lymphatic vessels (a system of vessels that drains fluid) are located throughout the breast. The lymphatic vessels in the breast drain to the lymph nodes in the underarm area (axilla) and behind the breast bone (sternum).
In females, milk exits the breast at the nipple, which is surrounded by a darkened area of skin called the areola. The areola contains small, modified sweat glands known as Montgomery's tubercules. These glands secrete fluid that serves to lubricate the nipple during breastfeeding.
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What are the most common medical conditions affecting the breasts?
Breast health is a source of concern for most women. Although breast cancer
is a fairly common malignancy affecting one out of every eight women in the U.S.
at some point in life, benign (non-cancerous) conditions of the breast are much
more common. In fact, most masses and
lumps in the breasts are not cancer.
Breast cancer occurs in males as well, but it accounts for a small percentage of
all breast cancers.
Among the benign breast conditions,
cysts and fibrocystic changes are common.
One type of benign tumor in particular, known as a fibroadenoma, is common in
young women. Infections of the breast tissue can also occur, particularly during
breastfeeding. Mastitis is the medical term for inflammation of the breast.
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What happens to the breasts in pregnancy?
During pregnancy, the breasts grow further due to stimulation by estrogens
(female hormones). The growth during pregnancy is more uniform than that
observed at puberty. The amount of tissue capable of producing milk is
approximately the same in all women, so women with smaller breasts produce the
same amount of milk as women with larger breasts. During pregnancy, the areola
becomes darker and enlarges in size.
How does breast tissue develop?
Breast tissue begins to form in the fourth week of fetal life. In the fetus,
breast tissue develops along two "milk lines" that start at the armpit and
extend to the groin. Uncommonly, an extra (ancillary) breast can develop along
this line. On the skin surface, an extra nipple (supernumerary nipple) may
develop along this line.
Picture of the milk lines
How are human breasts different from other species?
In other primates (such as apes), the breasts develop only when they are
producing milk. After the young have been weaned, the breasts flatten again. In
humans, the breasts enlarge at puberty and stay enlarged throughout a woman's
See a medical illustration of breast anatomy plus our entire medical gallery of human anatomy and physiology
Medically Reviewed on 7/25/2020
Medically reviewed by Wayne S. Blocker, MD; Board Certification: Obstetrics and Gynecology
REFERENCE: MedscapeReference.com. Breast Anatomy.