Gynecomastia is an endocrine system disorder in which a noncancerous increase in the size of male breast tissue occurs. Psychological distress or dysphoria may occur.
The development of gynecomastia is usually associated with benign pubertal changes. However, 75% of pubertal gynecomastia cases resolve within two years of onset without treatment. In rare cases, gynecomastia has been known to occur in association with certain disease states. The pathologic causes of gynecomastia are diverse and may include Klinefelter syndrome, certain cancers, endocrine disorders, metabolic dysfunction, various medications, or may occur due to a natural decline in testosterone production. Disturbances in the endocrine system that lead to an increase in the ratio of estrogens/androgens are thought to be responsible for the development of gynecomastia. This may occur even if the levels of estrogens and androgens are both appropriate, but the ratio is altered. Diagnosis is based on signs and symptoms.
The condition commonly resolves on its own and conservative management of gynecomastia is often all that is necessary. Medical treatment of gynecomastia that has persisted beyond two years is often ineffective. Medications such as aromatase inhibitors have been found to be effective in rare cases of gynecomastia from disorders such as aromatase excess syndrome or Peutz–Jeghers syndrome, but surgical removal of the excess tissue is usually required.
Gynecomastia is common. Physiologic gynecomastia develops in up to 70% of adolescent boys. Newborns and adolescent males often experience temporary gynecomastia due to the influence of maternal hormones and hormonal changes during puberty, respectively.
Signs and symptoms
The classic feature of gynecomastia is male breast enlargement with soft, compressible, and mobile subcutaneous chest tissue palpated under the areola of the nipple in contrast to softer fatty tissue. This enlargement may occur on one side or both. Dimpling of the skin and nipple retraction are not typical features of gynecomastia. Milky discharge from the nipple is also not a typical finding, but may be seen in a gynecomastic individual with a prolactin secreting tumor. An increase in the diameter of the areola and asymmetry of chest tissue are other possible signs of gynecomastia.
Males with gynecomastia may appear anxious or stressed due to concerns about the possibility of having breast cancer.
Gynecomastia is thought to be caused by an altered ratio of estrogens to androgens mediated by an increase in estrogen production, a decrease in androgen production, or a combination of these two factors. Estrogen acts as a growth hormone to increase the size of male breast tissue. The cause of gynecomastia is unknown in around 25% of cases. Drugs are estimated to cause 10–25% of cases of gynecomastia.
Certain health problems in men such as liver disease, kidney failure, or low testosterone can cause breast growth in men. Drugs and liver disease are the most common cause in adults. Other medications known to cause gynecomastia include methadone; aldosterone antagonists (spironolactone and eplerenone); HIV medication; cancer chemotherapy; hormone treatment for prostate cancer; heartburn and ulcer medications; calcium channel blockers; antifungal medications such as ketoconazole; antibiotics such as metronidazole; tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline; and herbals such as lavender, tea tree oil, and dong quai. The insecticide phenothrin possesses antiandrogen activity and has been associated with gynecomastia.
Many newborn infants of both sexes show breast development at birth or in the first weeks of life. During pregnancy, the placenta converts the androgenic hormones dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA sulfate to the estrogenic hormones estrone and estradiol, respectively; after these estrogens are produced by the placenta, they are transferred into the baby’s circulation, thereby leading to temporary gynecomastia in the baby. In some infants neonatal milk (also known as “witch’s milk”) can be secreted. The temporary gynecomastia seen in newborn babies usually resolves after two or three weeks.
Gynecomastia in adolescents usually starts between the ages of 10 and 12 and commonly goes away after 18 months.
Declining testosterone levels and an increase in the level of subcutaneous fatty tissue seen as part of the normal aging process can lead to gynecomastia in older men. This is also known as senile gynecomastia. Increased fatty tissue in these men leads to increased conversion of androgenic hormones such as testosterone to estrogens.
When the human body is deprived of adequate nutrition, testosterone levels drop, while the adrenal glands continue to produce estrogens, thereby causing a hormonal imbalance. Gynecomastia can also occur once normal nutrition is restarted (this is known as refeeding gynecomastia).
A small proportion of male gynecomastia cases may be seen with rare inherited disorders such as spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy and the very rare aromatase excess syndrome.
About 10–25% of cases are estimated to result from the use of medications, known as nonphysiologic gynecomastia. Medications known to cause gynecomastia include cimetidine, ketoconazole, gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogues, human growth hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, 5α-reductase inhibitors such as finasteride and dutasteride, certain estrogens used for prostate cancer, and antiandrogens such as bicalutamide, flutamide, and spironolactone. Medications that are probably associated with gynecomastia include calcium channel blockers such as verapamil, amlodipine, and nifedipine; risperidone, olanzapine, anabolic steroids, alcohol, opioids, efavirenz, alkylating agents, and omeprazole. Certain components of personal skin care products such as lavender essential oil or tea tree oil and certain dietary supplements such as dong quai and Tribulus terrestris have been associated with gynecomastia.
People with kidney failure are often malnourished, which may contribute to gynecomastia development. Dialysis may attenuate malnutrition of kidney failure. Additionally, many kidney failure patients experience a hormonal imbalance due to the suppression of testosterone production and testicular damage from high levels of urea also known as uremia-associated hypogonadism.
In individuals with liver failure or cirrhosis, the liver’s ability to properly metabolize hormones such as estrogen may be impaired. Additionally, those with alcoholic liver disease are further put at risk for development of gynecomastia; ethanol may directly disrupt the synthesis of testosterone and the presence of phytoestrogens in alcoholic drinks may also contribute to a higher estrogen to testosterone ratio. Conditions that can cause malabsorption such as cystic fibrosis or ulcerative colitis may also produce gynecomastia.
Testicular tumors such as Leydig cell tumors or Sertoli cell tumors (such as in Peutz–Jeghers syndrome) or hCG-secreting choriocarcinoma may result in gynecomastia. Other tumors such as adrenal tumors, pituitary gland tumors (such as a prolactinoma), or lung cancer, can produce hormones that alter the male–female hormone balance and cause gynecomastia.
Individuals with prostate cancer who are treated with androgen deprivation therapy may experience gynecomastia.
Mild cases of gynecomastia in adolescence may be treated with advice on lifestyle habits such as proper diet and exercise with reassurance. In more severe cases, medical treatment may be tried including surgical intervention.
Medical treatment of gynecomastia is most effective when done within the first two years after the start of male breast enlargement. Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) such as tamoxifen, raloxifene, and clomifene may be beneficial in the treatment of gynecomastia but are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in gynecomastia. Clomifene seems to be less effective than tamoxifen or raloxifene. Tamoxifen may be used for painful gynecomastia in adults. Aromatase inhibitors (AIs) such as anastrozole have been used off-label for cases of gynecomastia occurring during puberty but are less effective than SERMs. A few cases of gynecomastia caused by the rare disorders aromatase excess syndrome and Peutz–Jeghers syndrome have responded to treatment with AIs such as anastrozole. Androgens/anabolic steroids may be effective for gynecomastia. Testosterone itself may not be suitable to treat gynecomastia as it can be aromatized into estradiol, but nonaromatizable androgens like topical androstanolone (dihydrotestosterone) can be useful.
If chronic gynecomastia is untreated, surgical removal of glandular breast tissue is usually required. Surgical approaches to the treatment of gynecomastia include subcutaneous mastectomy, liposuction-assisted mastectomy, laser-assisted liposuction, and laser-lipolysis without liposuction. Complications of mastectomy may include hematoma, surgical wound infection, breast asymmetry, changes in sensation in the breast, necrosis of the areola or nipple, seroma, noticeable or painful scars, and contour deformities.
Radiation therapy and tamoxifen have been shown to help prevent gynecomastia and breast pain from developing in prostate cancer patients who will be receiving androgen deprivation therapy. The efficacy of these treatments is limited once gynecomastia has occurred and are therefore most effective when used prophylactically.
In the United States, many insurance companies deny coverage for surgery for gynecomastia treatment or male breast reduction on the basis that it is a cosmetic procedure.
Gynecomastia is not physically harmful, but in some cases it may be an indicator of other more serious underlying conditions, such as testicular cancer. The glandular tissue typically grows under the influence of hormonal stimulation and is often tender or painful. Furthermore, gynecomastia frequently presents social and psychological difficulties such as low self-esteem or shame for the sufferer. Weight loss can alter the condition in cases triggered by obesity, but losing weight will not reduce the glandular component and patients cannot target areas for weight loss. Massive weight loss can result in sagging chest tissue known as chest ptosis.
Gynecomastia is the most common benign disorder of the male breast tissue. New cases of gynecomastia are common in three age populations: newborns, adolescents, and men older than 50 years old. Newborn gynecomastia occurs in about 60–90 percent of male babies and most cases resolve on their own. During adolescence, up to 70 percent of males are estimated to exhibit signs of gynecomastia. Senile gynecomastia is estimated to be present in 24–65 percent of men between the ages of fifty and eighty.
The prevalence of gynecomastia in men may have increased in recent years, but the epidemiology of the disorder is not fully understood. The use of anabolic steroids and exposure to chemicals that mimic estrogen in cosmetic products, organochlorine pesticides, and industrial chemicals have been suggested as possible factors driving this increase. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, breast reduction surgeries to correct gynecomastia are becoming increasingly common. In 2006, there were 14,000 procedures of this type performed in the United States alone.