Allodynia is a common co-morbid condition which means wearing a bra can literally be a pain. Here’s why fibromyalgia and bras do NOT go hand-in-hand. My experience with bras and why I HATE them. Yes – hate them.The real pain of wearing a #bra with #fibromyalgia and #chronicpain. #beingfibromom Click To Tweet
This article first appeared in The Fibromyalgia Magazine, March 2018. Get the digital copy of the magazine from Pocketmags.
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“Over the Shoulder Boulder Holder”
That’s what CC Bloom calls a bra in a musical rendition in the movie Beaches (one of my favorite movies starring the amazing Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler). I didn’t quite understand the full meaning of the phrase at the tender age of ten, but it was entertaining nonetheless. Little did I know that I would come to fully understand – and come to despise – this undergarment in various stages of my life.
During my pubescent years, I hoped to one day be able to fill one of those “over the shoulder boulder holders.” And not just a little fill, but fully fill it, if you get my drift. Modeling in front of the bathroom’s full-length mirror, I would stuff tissues into my training bra to see what it would look like to have breasts. Of course, training bra meant a thin piece of cotton wrapping around the chest merely providing an extra layer of clothing rather than real support. Regardless, I liked what I saw, and I was all too impatient to get those womanly features.
Bra is a Short Way to Spell “Torture Device”
When I finally developed after hitting the awkward phase of puberty and a real bra was required, I immediately hated it. Not only was it constricting and itchy, but it was downright uncomfortable. Even with a small chest, I dreaded wearing that contraption each day. And that’s exactly what it felt like – a contraption for my upper torso. It didn’t take me long to realize why these undergarments had also acquired the name of ‘torture device’. Unfortunately, this was only a small taste of what was to come.
During my high school years, I discovered the underwire bra. Coincidentally, this happens to be the same time I discovered that the underwire was an extension of torture to an already daily required punishment that comes with wearing this absurd garment. I was always unsure of where to wear the underwire – snug under the breast or further down to lay against my rib cage. Regardless of where it was worn, it chafed my skin and caused major irritation. Needless to say, my phase of wearing an underwire bra was short-lived.
“Real Womanly” Breasts
While serving in the military, I found the sports bra to be the best bra for me. It was comfortable, provided adequate support throughout the long duty days, and could be washed with any type of laundry. It was super convenient and affordable for me at the time. Unfortunately, this all changed when I became pregnant with my first child.
When I became pregnant, it seemed my chest swelled from a borderline B/C cup to a full DD overnight. The full cup I desperately wanted when I was younger was finally a reality. Here, in all their glory, were my “real womanly” breasts. It was exciting to achieve the look I imagined in the mirror when I was younger. It didn’t occur to me at the time that finding a bra for my newly acquired size would be a long and tedious process. I also didn’t realize the constant pain and other issues that come with a well-developed bosom.
Fibromyalgia and Bras: The REAL Pain of Wearing a Bra
As it is, my shoulders, back, neck, and chest are in a constant state of pain. Now I had to deal with the other issues of being that full cup. I believe half of the pain is from living with fibromyalgia and the other half is a combination of the three issues I have with a bra: weight, allodynia, and an ill-fitting bra.
According to Discover Magazine’s article, The Physics of Bras by Anne Casselman, “A pair of D-cup breasts weighs between 15 and 23 pounds – the equivalent of carrying around two small turkeys.” Carrying that much weight sounds heavy let alone how it feels carrying it each day.
Once my husband asked me how heavy my chest is and what it was like to carry it around. To get an idea of the weight, he stood behind me with my back to his chest and lifted my breasts with his hands. I instantly felt a relief of pressure off my upper body. It felt wonderful to not have that weight hanging on me. For him, he was astonished by the weight. He couldn’t believe the weight I was carrying each day. He then understood my hatred of a bra and the regret I had for wanting a larger chest.
In addition to this oppressive undergarment causing pains in my upper back and chest, I face the daily complexities of living with fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia has various symptoms, and one of them is allodynia. Allodynia causes a person to feel pain where there normally isn’t pain. The most common example is experiencing pain when the skin is slightly touched. Wearing even loose clothing can trigger allodynia, and a bra can make that discomfort and pain even worse.
Often times I dread having to leave the house and don ‘real’ clothes, and by real clothes I mean clothes that are not pajamas. The bra is a part of those real clothes. I know what’s to come: the feeling of my skin being cut by the straps; the itchy, crawling feeling across my back, shoulders, and chest; and the limited range of motion while wearing it. Seriously, I sometimes feel as though I can’t do anything while I’m wearing a bra, and try to move as little as possible.
Being a mom leaves little room for ‘out of the norm’ tasks. Unfortunately, buying a new bra is one of those ‘out of the norm’ tasks. It requires finding time to go to the store, identifying the correct bra size, picking an appealing one, and trying it on (IF you have time). All of this while juggling multiple children and running on no sleep and in constant pain. Result: Randomly picking a bra presumed to be the correct size only to have the band ride up the back, have cup gaps, and straps that cause deep grooves in the shoulders.
The consequences of an ill-fitting bra
While chatting about the absurdities of bras with my gal pals one day, I discovered I didn’t know all that much about bras. I knew that they hurt like hell to wear each day, but I didn’t realize there were wrong ways to wear a bra. This inspired me to research all about bras. I was astonished to find the consequences of a poorly fitted bra.
When a bra is too small, Physiotherapist and spokesperson for the Chartered Society for Physiotherapy Sammy Margo says, “…it creates pressure on the nerves, muscles and blood vessels around the shoulders, upper back, and rib cage, leading to pain, headaches, and even constant pins and needles in the arms.” He goes on to say that this prolonged pressure can cause damage to the shoulder joint reducing the range of movement and arm function. This results in constant pain for the wearer.
Alternatively, wearing a bra that is too big can also lead to problems, according to Margo. Problems include hunched shoulders in a failed attempt to compensate for the inadequate support as well as having the constant weight of the breasts against the rib cage resulting in breathing issues.
Many women will adjust bra straps in a vain attempt to tighten the bra if it feels too loose or not supportive enough. I am definitely guilty of this! Marks & Spencer’s top bra fitting expert, Julia Mercer, says it’s common for women to believe that the purpose of the straps of a bra is to support and hold up the breasts. In fact, straps are there to hold the breasts in one position, while it’s the band of the bra that does all of the supporting.
Tight straps place pressure on the shoulders. Not only will this lead to permanent grooves in the shoulders, but it also pulls the shoulders and spine forward. Nerves can also be damaged by too-tight straps, leading to weakness in the arms and hands, tingling or pins and needles in the arms, and blue or swollen hands and fingers.
Wait a minute. Sports bras are listed under ‘the consequences of a poor-fitting bra.’ I’m sorry to say that research has shown that wearing a sports bra on a regular basis for extended periods of time can cause breathing problems. Think about it: A bra, when worn correctly, can put pressure around the chest/rib cage area. A more form-fitting bra, like a sports bra, which is intended for exercising, puts greater pressure around the rib cage in order to hold the breasts in place. When this is done on a regular basis for extended hours at a time, it’s no wonder it can cause breathing issues.
Is there a solution?
Even though this entire article has been listing the issues of wearing a bra especially when living with fibromyalgia, there is hope. Like all the problems I encounter, I search for solutions. This is no exception. In next month’s edition, I’ll help you find the correct bra size, share how to get the proper fit, and explore bra types for different occasions. Wearing a properly fitting bra will not only reduce pain in the shoulders and back but also lower overall body pains.