Anatomy of the lactating human breast redefined with ultrasound imaging

D. T. Ramsay, J. C. Kent, R. A. Hartmann and P. E. Hartmann

Journal of Anatomy 206 (6), 525–534.


The aim of this study was to use ultrasound imaging to re-investigate the anatomy of the lactating breast. The breasts of 21 fully lactating women (1–6 months post partum) were scanned using an ACUSON XP10 (5–10 MHz linear array probe). The number of main ducts was measured, ductal morphology was determined, and the distribution of glandular and adipose tissue was recorded.

Milk ducts appeared as hypoechoic tubular structures with echogenic walls that often contained echoes. Ducts were easily compressed and did not display typical sinuses. All ducts branched within the areolar radius, the first branch occurring 8.0 ± 5.5 mm from the nipple. Duct diameter was 1.9 ± 0.6 mm, 2.0 ± 90.7 mm and the number of main ducts was 9.6 ± 2.9, 9.2 ± 2.9, for left and right breast, respectively. Milk ducts are superficial, easily compressible and echoes within the duct represent fat globules in breastmilk. The low number and size of the ducts, the rapid branching under the areola and the absence of sinuses suggest that ducts transport breastmilk, rather than store it. The distribution of adipose and glandular tissue showed wide variation between women but not between breasts within women. The proportion of glandular and fat tissue and the number and size of ducts were not related to milk production. This study highlights inconsistencies in anatomical literature that impact on breast physiology, breastfeeding management and ultrasound assessment.

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