Nipple Pain & Damage
Why does it hurt?
Breastfeeding is supposed to be the most natural, beautiful thing in the world, right? Unfortunately, breastfeeding is often painful and difficult, especially in the early days.
A recent study showed that 79% of breastfeeding mothers experienced nipple pain before discharge from hospital, and 20% still had pain at 8 weeks post birth.
There are many varied reasons for this pain, from local factors such as bacterial infection, thrush, dermatitis or spasm of the local blood vessels, to external factors such as the baby having a tongue or lip tie, or a poor latch where the baby's hard palate is damaging the nipple.
Ongoing nipple or breast pain should definitely be investigated by a specialist health professional. Try and make an appointment with a lactation consultant or a GP who specialises in breastfeeding. They should be able to diagnose problems with latching, and they may take swabs to determine if the source of pain is bacterial or fungal and then treat with appropriate medication.
However, in the decade that I have worked in obstetric physiotherapy, I see a common picture over and over again - the women whose nipples have been damaged in those challenging first few days of breastfeeding while mother and baby are both learning, and then the cracks, grazes or blisters struggle to heal due to being sucked on every few hours (or more!). This type of local damage, in women who have already corrected their latch, or are working to do so, can really be helped by a physiotherapy treatment called low level laser therapy.
Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) is a painless treatment done by a physio with extra training (we have to be properly licensed to operate a machine), and only takes about 5-10 minutes per nipple. The LLLT works to heal damaged tissue and reduce local pain, by stimulating microcirculation and promoting repair at a cellular level. Usually 2-4 sessions on consecutive days are needed.
There is fantastic scientific evidence available that LLLT speeds up tissue repair - in fact, over 900 studies showing that it doesn't do this would now be needed to disprove the theory. Some Women's Health Physiotherapists are using it to speed up the healing of episiotomies and perineal tearing after childbirth too, with good results.
Not all physiotherapy practices will have this service available, due to the specialist nature of the treatment, so call beforehand to check before making an appointment. If you are local to Perth, Southcare Physiotherapy in Murdoch has this service available 7 days a week as an outpatient, and most maternity hospitals offer it as an inpatient.