Both men and women have breasts. In women they are well developed while in men they are rudimentary. Yet 60 per cent of men, at some point in their life, develop aesthetically unacceptable gynaecomastia, a term which in Greek means breasts like a woman.
Male babies may develop enlargement of one or both breasts. Sometimes, the affected breasts may also secrete a watery milk-like secretion. This is normal and occurs because the babys breast has been influenced by the mothers hormones. It disappears if left alone. Pressing it to remove the milk can result in infection and abscess formation.
Thirty to 50 per cent boys in the age group 11 to 14 years suddenly develop breasts. It occurs because during this time the levels of the sex hormones, both estrogen (female hormone) and testosterone (male hormone), start to increase. Testosterone controls male traits such as muscle mass and body hair, while estrogen controls female traits, including the growth of breasts. A perfect ratio has to be maintained, or else it might lead to the development of breasts in boys. In 75 per cent of them, the breasts regress spontaneously within three years.
Breast enlargement in boys may persist because of hypogonadism (inadequate development of the male sex organs). This may be genetic — in people whose genetic profile is XXY instead of XY, owing to the failure of the testes to develop at all, or a result of artificial removal of the testes (castration). It may occur in adults as a result of kidney and thyroid diseases. Liver damage can also result in low testosterone levels and enlarged breasts.
Enzymes belonging to the cytochrome P450 group, found in fat tissue, convert testosterones to estrogens. As the fat tissue increases gynaecomastia can occur. Weight loss and exercises, like the bench press and push-ups, can correct this type of breast enlargement along with overall weight reduction.
These enzymes can be affected by medications for ulcers, anti psychotic drugs, sedatives, diuretics and some antibiotics. Long-term use of medications belonging to these groups can cause gynaecomastia. Several illicit drugs are available on the streets today. Some, such as the amphetamines, are touted as a safe adjuvant to long hours of studying as they prevent drowsiness. But long-term use of these not only damages the psyche but also promotes breast development.
Nutritional supplements are used by many bodybuilders. Many do not contain all the ingredients listed. Some are sold secretly under the counter or via the Internet. Many preparations are not legal or may have expired. They may not conform to safety standards. Moreover, they may contain steroids. Sometimes, they contain creatinine, natural ingredients found in the human body. However, they may be dangerous to health, and cause enlarged and sometimes lumpy breasts.
There is no short cut to a Mr World physique. At least two hours of workout is needed with a healthy high-protein, low-fat diet.
Gynaecomastia is not always harmless. It needs to be reviewed with all previous medical documents, and investigated with blood tests and scans. Very rarely, gynaecomastia confined to one side may be due to cancer.
Diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause of gynaecomastia may lead to improvement. Changing the offending medication, avoiding alcohol and exercising regularly may be all that is required. Some medications which are anti estrogen, or testosterone derivatives can sometimes be used on a short-term basis under medical supervision. These medications are for treating other diseases and are not universally approved for the treatment of gynaecomastia.
Medical treatment or waiting and watching can be tried for two to three years. After that, the breast tissue tends to harden and then surgery is the only alternative. There are several options — liposuction, gland excision, skin sculpture, reduction mammoplasty or a combination of these techniques. Reduction surgery is a cosmetic procedure and is usually performed by plastic surgeons.
In 25 per cent of men with persistent gynaecomastia, there is no correctable cause, nor is the condition dangerous. If they do not wish to have surgery or try medications and just wish to live with the condition, the breasts can often be compressed. An elastic girdle worn by women around their abdomens can be used and works quite well. Or else, a loose thick shirt may be sufficient to hide the offending bulges.
Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org