What Is Gynecomastia?

Gynecomastia is not a familiar term, but it is a fairly common condition. The result of a hormonal imbalance between estrogen and testosterone, gynecomastia is a swelling or enlargement of the breast tissue in boys or men. The condition occurs in 60-90 percent of newborns, 50-60 percent of boys in puberty and as many as 70 percent of men age 50 and older. It can affect one or both breasts, sometimes unevenly.

Newborn babies end up with some of the mother’s estrogen in their blood for awhile after birth leading to short-term gynecomastia. During puberty, hormones are going through a normal change and it is not uncommon for estrogen levels to be temporarily elevated. The is also true of men as they are aging and their hormones are adjusting. Most cases are relatively short term, and the condition disappears naturally within a few years, at most.

Other Causes of Gynecomastia

While most instances of gynecomastia are normal hormonal imbalances during periods of transition, there can be other causes, like being a side effect of certain medications, such as antidepressants, antibiotics, chemotherapy, prostate cancer and cardiovascular medicines.

There are a number of medical conditions and diseases that may also cause gynecomastia. Some of these include:

  • Liver diseases
  • Kidney disease
  • Congenital disorders
  • Lung cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Tumors of the adrenal glands or pituitary gland
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Injury or trauma
  • Obesity

Psychological Implications of Enlarged Breasts for Men

Gynecomastia is not normally a serious problem, especially since, in most cases, it is temporary, but it can be psychologically difficult. Having enlarged breasts can be embarrassing for men and boys. Even mild gynecomastia can adversely affect boys, especially during puberty, which is chaotic and confusing on many levels. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, “Gynecomastia has a significant negative impact on primarily the psychosocial well-being of affected adolescent patients, specifically in regard to social functioning, mental health, and self-esteem. Psychosocial impact was not affected by graded severity of disease.”

Being a natural condition, there should not be such a stigma for boys and men to have enlarged breasts but, in reality, it is just the opposite. Children of all ages can be incredibly cruel when there is something different about someone. When that difference has to do with a characteristic that is considered “like a girl”, the teasing can be intense. Even when boys grow into men, they carry the same sense of shame about anything to do with their breasts. Men have a low incidence of breast cancer but a much higher mortality rate due to waiting far too long to acknowledge there might be a problem with their breast.

Treatment

If gynecomastia is the result of hormonal fluctuations that go with growth or aging, there is no way to prevent it from happening. If related to a medical condition or medication, then taking steps to prevent the contributing cause would be the way to prevent breast enlargement, and treating the condition would also treat the gynecomastia.

Treatment is usually unnecessary since, in most cases, the breasts will return to their regular shape and size once the hormones have stabilized. If there is discomfort, icing and over-the-counter medications can reduce any pain. If the condition persists, there are medications as well as surgical options that your doctor may suggest.