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Is Your Bra Strangling Your Breasts and Your Health?

Tim Boyer's picture

A new study has found that up to 85 percent of the women in the United Kingdom are wearing ill-fitting bras, some of which are strangling women’s breasts and may be adversely affecting their health.

Breast health in relationship to wearing a bra typically focuses on the question of whether bras can cause breast cancer. While some studies have claimed or eluded to possible evidence that bras can cause breast cancer, the National Cancer Society states that this is a myth and that there is no scientific evidence that wearing a bra can cause cancer.

The origin of this myth can be attributed to a provocative 1995 book titled “Dressed to Kill” that claims that women who wear underwire bras up to 12 hours per day have a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not wear a bra. Following the publication of the book, a few studies came out seeming to support the claim by pointing out that women in countries where bras are not worn have lower incidences of breast cancer.

One of the primary mechanisms of action purported to account for the harm bras can cause was the hypothesis that underwire style bras compress the lymph nodes around the breasts and decreases circulation and lymph drainage which in turn results in a build-up of toxins that may promote tumor development.

The American Cancer Society refutes this hypothesis pointing out that the body’s fluids travel up and into the lymph nodes and not in the region where the underwire presses into the breast. Furthermore, other researchers note that looking at data analyzing women treated for melanoma who had their underarm lymph nodes removed—which blocks lymph drainage from breast tissue—do not have a detectably increased rate of breast cancer.

Former breast cancer surgeon Susan Love, MD and author of “Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book,” agrees that the belief that wearing a bra can cause cancer is a myth and explains that the reason why some women may hold onto this myth comes from the frustration of not knowing what causes the disease, coupled with a desire that the disease should come from the outside, from something a woman can control.

"You find people less wanting to think about birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy and fertility drugs," she says, "and more about pesticides, bras and deodorant. We don't know what causes breast cancer, and the majority of the risk factors that we know about do not explain it. However," she adds, "I don't think bras—or the lack thereof—are the secret answer," she states in a Scientific American article addressing the myth.

However, what is not a myth is that an ill-fitting bra can cause health problems for women involving their breasts—especially for women with large breasts. Some of the problems attributed to ill-fitting bras and large breasts include:

• Breathing problems with ill-fitting fashion bras that are tight and have underwire support features that actually restricts rib cage movement and accessory muscles used for breathing. Sports bras are another example of a type of bra that should not be used all the time because it is even more constrictive than ordinary bras. Constantly having your breasts pushed inwards can cause circulation restriction, which may damage breast tissue.

• Irritable bowel syndrome has been associated with ill-fitting bras that constrict too much and interfere with the digestive process by putting undue pressure on the diaphragm.

• Circulation problems can develop when the pectoral muscles in the chest are compressed, affecting the neurovascular bundle of nerves to the arms causing a pins and needles sensation.

• Skin problems due to tight straps or hooks digging into the flesh causing lesions or lymphomas.

• Back problems from insufficient support to the trapezius muscle from an ill-fitting bra can cause muscle strain which then leads to chronic back, shoulder and neck pain.

According to a recent article published in the journal Ergonomics, ill-fitting bras are due to women relying on the traditional tape measure method for determining what bra size to wear. In a study comparing the tape measure method against a “best fit” method based on a set of specific criteria, more than three-fourths of the cases using the tape measure method got their bra size wrong. The researchers believe that this may contribute to the estimated 85 per cent of women in the United Kingdom who wear the wrong sized bra.

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On average the tape measure fitting method gave a result that was one cup size smaller and one band size larger than the best fit method.

According to the lead author of the study, Jenny White from the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmith, “We measured the same women using the two approaches and found that the traditional method resulted in the underband being too loose and the cup too small. Using the best fit criteria our fitters achieved a supportive comfortable fit which our participants were happy with. Wearing a well-fitting bra is crucial to achieving good support and helping women look and feel their best. And it can help prevent back and neck pain and reduce irreversible breast sag,” she said.

The authors of the paper state that the best fit method is preferable to determining a woman’s correct bra size and that the method consists of five criteria that must be considered:

1. Bra Band
Too tight: flesh bulging over top of band; subjective discomfort “feels too tight”
Too loose: band lifts when arms are moved above head, posterior band not level with infra-mammary fold

2. Bra Cup
Too big: wrinkles in cup fabric
Too small: breast tissue bulging above, below or at the sides

3. Bra Underwire
Incorrect shape: underwire sitting on breast tissue laterally (under armpit) or anterior midline; subjective complaint of discomfort

4. Bra Straps
Too tight: digging in; subjective complaint of discomfort; carrying too much of the weight of the breasts
Too loose: sliding down off shoulder with no ability to adjust the length

5. Bra Front Band
Not all in contact with the sternum

The authors of the paper say that using a tape measure can be a good place to start, but that women should not become fixated on a number due to that a woman’s breast size and shape can change during the month and with age.

“Women should frequently evaluate their bra size and be prepared to buy a range of different sizes. There is little overall difference in breast size between a 38 C, a 36 D and a 40 B, the important factors being comfort and support,” says researcher Jenny White.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia


“Evaluation of professional bra fitting criteria for bra selection and fitting in the UK” Ergonomics March 2012; J. White and J. Scurr; DOI: 10.1080/00140139.2011.647096

University of Portsmith news

Scientific American “Is your bra killing you?” April 19, 2007; S.M. Kramer



Women really need to understand that a great bra will do wonders! I had slipped disks in the past and have to be very careful. My friend just recommended a bra by Poison Lingerie that helps with posture and I feel so much better. I'm definitely not wearing an ill fitting bra ever again.
A good point--thanks for the useful input!
The bra-breast cancer suspicion long predates "Dressed to Kill." It traces back at least to 1935.