Granulomatous inflammatory lesions of the breast can be divided into idiopathic granulomatous mastitis (also known as granular lobular mastitis) and granulomatous mastitis occurring as a rare secondary complication of a great variety of other conditions such as tuberculosis and other infections, sarcoidosis and Wegener's granulomatosis. Special forms of granulomatous mastitis occur as complication of diabetes. Some cases are due to silicone injection (Silicone-induced granulomatous inflammation) or other foreign body reactions.
Primary presentation of any of these conditions as mastitis is very rare and in many cases probably predisposed by other breast or systemic conditions.
Although granulomatous mastitis is easily confused with cancer it is a completely benign (non-cancerous) condition.
Treatment is radically different for idiopathic granulomatous mastitis and other granulomatous lesions of the breast, the precise diagnosis is therefore very important.
Idiopathic granulomatous mastitis
Idiopathic granulomatous mastitis is defined as granulomatous mastits without any other attributable cause such as those above mentioned. It occurs on average two years and almost exclusively up to six years after pregnancy, usual age range is 17 to 42 years. Some cases have been reported that were related to drug induced hyperprolactinemia.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Patients mostly present with a hard lump in one breast without any sign of a systemic disease. Other possible symptoms include nipple retraction, pain, inflammation of the overlying skin, nipple discharge, fistula, enlarged lymph nodes, in rare case peau d'orange-like changes.
Presentation is mostly unilateral although a significant share of cases is bilateral, also in many cases contralateral or bilateral recurrences were documented.
Characteristic for idiopathic granulomatous mastitis are multinucleated giant cells and epithelioid histiocytes forming non-caseating granulomas around lobules. Often minor ductal and periductal inflammation is present. The lesion is in some cases very difficult to distinguish from breast cancer and other causes such as infections (tuberculosis, syphilis, corynebacterial infection, mycotic infection), autoimmune diseases (sarcoidosis, Wegener's granulomatosis), foreign body reaction and granulomatous reaction in a carcinoma must be excluded.
The condition is diagnosed very rarely. As the diagnosis is a lengthy differential diagnosis of exclusion there is considerable uncertainty about incidence. It has been suspected that some cases diagnosed as IGM in developing countries may have other explanations. On the other hand IGM is usually diagnosed only after complications and referral to a secondary breast care center so light cases may resolve spontaneously or after symptomatic treatment and thus never be diagnosed as IGM. As a completely pathogen free breast will be exceedingly rare even in completely healthy population there is also uncertainty when to consider pathogens as causative or as mere coincidental finding.
The cause is currently unknown. The histology is suggestive of an autoimmune reaction. The high rate of relapses as well as relatively high proportion of bilateral cases is highly suggestive of a systemic predisposition.
Presently most evidence points towards an important role of elevated prolactin levels or overt hyperprolactinemia with additional triggers such as local trauma or irritation. Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency was documented in one case, interferon-alpha therapy in another case. Similar cases of granulomatous mastitis were reported in hyper-IgG4 disease though the exact relationship to IGM remains to be elucidated. Other contributing factors of IGM were investigated such as oral contraceptives usage. Many cases were reported after use of prolactin elevating medications such as antipsychotics.
Elevated prolactin levels have the direct effects of increasing secretory activity of breast lobules, maintaining tight junctions of the ductal epithelium, preventing involution of the breast gland after weaning and are known to stimulate the immune system, contributing to both physiological and pathological granulomatous lesions and non-caseating granulomas. PRL is also secreted locally in the breast and local secretion by lymphocytes may be enhanced during inflammatory reactions. Autoimmune reaction to extravasated fat and protein rich luminal fluid (denaturized milk) resulting from the secretory activity is assumed to be one of the triggers of IGM. Several other hormones can contribute to PRL signaling in the breast gland, high levels of insulin caused for example by peripheral insulin resistance (resulting from pregnancy, gestational diabetes or developing diabetes mellitus type 2) will enhance the galactogenic and antiapoptotic effects of PRL and growth hormone by acting synergistically with IGF-1.
Treatment protocol is not well established. Some sources report that approximately half of the patients will fully recover after lengthy (mean time 14.5 months, range 2–24 months) expectant management.
Treatment with steroids is lengthy and usually requires about 6 months. While some source report very good success with steroids most report a considerable risk of recurrence after a treatment with steroids alone. Steroids are known to cause elevation of prolactin levels and increase risk of several conditions such as diabetes, and other endocrinopathies which in turn increase the risk of IGM. Treatment with topical steroids to limit side effects was also reported in one case. For surgical treatment recurrence rates of 5-50% have been reported.
Treatment with a combination of glucocorticoids and prolactin lowering medications such as bromocriptine or cabergoline was used with good success in Germany. Prolactin lowering medication has also been reported to reduce the risk of recurrence. In cases of drug-induced hyperprolactinemia (such as antipsychotics) prolactin-sparing medication can be tried.
Methotrexate alone or in combination with steroids has been used with good success. Its principal mechanism of action is immunomodulating activity, with a side effect profile that is more favorable for treating IGM.
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